April is National Volunteer Month, but no rule says students need to wait until April to volunteer or start looking for projects they want to engage in. A month dedicated to supporting organizations tackling issues like poverty, health, or the environment creates awareness about what nonprofits and NGOs do and can help students expand their world. By participating in programs that are a step out into a broader community, allows students to not only help others and their communities, but also provides an opportunity to examine their values surrounding empathy, altruism, resilience, and persistence. Students come to the world of community service with varying degrees of enthusiasm and awareness of societal inequality and the impacts of community service. With that in mind, exploring varying types of volunteer opportunities, whether in your neighborhood, another part of the country, or outside of the U.S., can be a significant first step to discovering the power to create change on a local or global level.
I am often asked, "When and where should I do community service?" and "How many hours do I need to do?". These are excellent questions to ask when just beginning to think about community service, and essential when considering timing and programs that will support a positive and impactful experience.
The waters on community service get muddied, however, when the questions come up late in high school and are tied directly to viewing community service as a prerequisite box that needs to be checked to apply to college successfully. For colleges trying to assess a student's character, one clue in their college application is the level of the student’s engagement beyond their academic obligations. Students often feel that the only option they have to express this engagement is through big endeavors, namely voluntourism trips.
Voluntourism combines travel abroad with volunteer work. Though it is a trend that has recently caught the public eye, engaging with this popular form of community service can be a complex and slippery slope. While voluntourism can be mutually beneficial to both the volunteer and the people served, sometimes the focus ends up falling disproportionately on building a resume for the volunteer, resulting in faulty short term projects rather than promoting the long term wellbeing of the community. Not only does voluntourism sometimes take advantage of the community, but it can also take away from a student’s opportunity to create a truly meaningful experience. Why halfheartedly participate in a project in Guatemala when you could have a transformative experience simply volunteering at your local library? With proper research, students can assess the legitimacy, positive and potentially harmful impacts, and cost of participating in a particular program to determine if it will meet their needs and goals for service.
What is sometimes overlooked is how students can demonstrate and articulate their core values in ways that may not include voluntourism trips. While many students might grab onto the one week trip or international beach clean-up, they should not assume those are the only ways to demonstrate who they are and what they value. Not all students have the time to build a long-term commitment to single or multiple organizations. A good starting place can be small-scale and even short term. Dipping their toes in the vast ocean of volunteer opportunities creates a means for students to discover where their interests lie. Students whose curiosity about volunteering is just budding can explore local opportunities, like volunteering at a community library, food bank, or environmental group.
I often hear the question, “Don’t I have to volunteer to get into college?”. My response is that volunteering shouldn’t just be about your college application; it’s an opportunity to engage with and help your community. It is up to you to define who and where your community is -- whether it’s within a five-mile radius of your home, in your state, in your country, or on another continent -- just as long as those community members want your assistance.
So how do students begin and decide what opportunity is right for them? How do parents support them? Here are some questions you can ask yourself to form a plan.
Is your child hands-on and likes to see results?
How much time is your child able to spend outside of school?
Do they like to travel or prefer being close to home?
How does your child spend school breaks and summers?
Does your child have an interest or talent that can be shared with others?
Determining a genuine interest -- whether that be a hands-on project, supporting an existing non-profit, or working in a specific area -- will make the difference in creating a meaningful community service experience that goes way beyond checking a box.
Not sure how to determine what is a good project for you? Here are some articles on volunteering and voluntourism that might help draw clearer distinctions and offer some places that need volunteers.
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