I have dozens of excuses for why I don’t volunteer more often. There’s always more homework to do, cover letters to write and Saturday mornings to be filled with sleep. I tell myself that service requires a pure sense of altruism and a willingness to sacrifice a lot of time and effort, neither of which I have in abundance. It’s easy for me to build up volunteering into an ideal that is unreachable for normal college students like me. The reality is that there is no right reason, right way or right amount of time to serve — volunteering is worthwhile for both the community that you serve and for yourself.
“The Right Reasons”
In his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve … You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” My gut reaction to Dr. King’s description of service is that I don’t fit the bill. Sometimes my service is more motivated by my resume than by grace and more interested in a fun experience than in acting out of love. Service often originates from a deep sense of altruism, which is defined as the “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” Sometimes, though, college students like me serve for far less glamorous reasons — sometimes we just need another line on our resume. Volunteering because of a self-interested motivational factor doesn’t make service less valuable, however. There is power in showing up, whatever your reason for doing so.
I have found that I sometimes start volunteering for the “wrong reasons,” but end up continuing because I love the work that I’m doing. I started volunteering with my church because I needed something to keep me busy, but I kept signing up for more responsibilities because I realized that I loved guiding others through difficult periods, planning events and teaching, even if I wasn’t getting paid. I’m now four years into volunteering at the Newman Center. I’ve done everything from talking to Latinx youth about their fears about living in Trump’s America to facilitating conversations about beauty in a random town in Austria. My initial reasons for volunteering were selfish, and occasionally I’ve been motivated by my resume. Even though I’m not always perfectly altruistic, my self-interest has changed into love for the work I do and the people I serve.
Altruism sounds exhausting. Culturally, we think of sharing time and effort as a loss for us — if someone else gains the benefits of my time and effort, then I have to be losing out. Thankfully, volunteering isn’t a zero-sum game and altruism is actually psychologically rewarding. A study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that “a strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate, so long as they are not overwhelmed by helping tasks.” Volunteering can be hard and emotionally draining, especially when you open yourself to the people you’re serving. When I volunteer to mentor students, I open myself to caring about their lives and to sharing my own experiences with them. I could save myself a lot of emotional investment and potential pain by staying at home in my own bubble, but volunteering has also opened me up to a level of happiness and fulfillment that I otherwise would have never experienced.
Real Life & Resumes
Happiness and personal development can’t be quantified, but volunteering certainly can in terms of its benefits for college students’ job prospects. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that unemployed people who volunteered between 20-99 hours in a year were seven percent more likely to have found a job a year later than non-volunteers. LinkedIn now has an option to list volunteer experience on your job profile, indicating that employers are more interested than ever in what you do when you’re between jobs. Volunteering can help you gain and refine skills, make industry connections and figure out what you want to do in your career.
As a freshman English major, I had no marketable skills. My church needed some advertisements made for an event, so I volunteered to make a few even though I had no design experience. I taught myself some of the principles of graphic design using free tools online, tried out some free software and got to work. I’ve honed my skills on low-stakes advertising projects since then and now I list advertising and marketing as skills on my job search profiles. In addition to learning new skills, I have also gotten the chance to work on skills that I don’t get to use in my paid jobs. Writing for The Daily Utah Chronicle doesn’t require me to listen to students and advise them on their personal issues, but I get to practice these skills when I volunteer. My dream job requires these skills, and volunteering helps me to keep them fresh.
Volunteering consistently throughout college has also helped me make professional connections in my preferred field of professional ministry. I’ve gotten to meet lay and religious leaders in dioceses around the world. More locally, I volunteered on a council for two years that introduced me to professionals in a wide variety of fields who took me under their wings and helped me to become a better professional. Showing that I was interested and showing up to volunteer was enough for the working professionals that I volunteer with to take notice and help me learn about my field.
Surprisingly, volunteering also helped me to clarify what I want to do with my life. I would have never wanted to go into professional ministry if I hadn’t gotten a chance to volunteer for years in a low-stakes, educational environment. Talking to my fellow students, planning events and strategizing for the long-term health of the organization made me realize how much I love ministry, and I would still be on my old path to becoming a political worker if I hadn’t decided to volunteer.
My experiences with volunteering are specific to me, of course, but I believe that they will resonate in some way with most people who volunteer. There are plenty of ways to get involved on campus and in the Salt Lake City community. The Bennion Center offers opportunities to volunteer with Alternative Fall and Spring Breaks, Utah Reads, Saturday Service Projects, an MLK Day of Service, the Legacy of Lowell Day of Service, Project Youth, the Sustainable Saturday Service Project and the Service Corner. University of Utah Health has programs like the Hospital Elder Life Program and the No One Dies Alone Program that would be perfect for students interested in healthcare. Organizations in Salt Lake City offer volunteer opportunities for students interested in protecting LGBTQ rights, animal welfare, clean air and more. Whatever your personal or professional interests are, there’s an organization that would love to have your help.
However much time you have, whatever skills you have, whatever your reasons, you should volunteer. It’s good for your community and it’s good for you.