The importance of volunteering as a vehicle for societal development is ingrained in most of us at an early age. In both elementary and high school, students are taught that it’s a great way to learn about and give back to the community. Indeed, the impact that simply giving our time to a project—a food drive, a charity walk—can have on a social cause is substantial. However, it is equally important to focus on how the process of volunteering positively affects the volunteer, both immediately and in the long term.
When I was young, the benefits of extra-curricular activities such as volunteering were not always apparent to me. But I can now safely say that my teachers and anyone else who pushed me to take part in these experiences knew something I didn’t: experiential learning—that is, learning through experiences, through action and by doing—is key to personal and professional development.
Benjamin Franklin knew this. Over 250 years ago he penned this timeless adage: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I will learn.” He knew that people grow not by simply reading, seeing and hearing, but by doing. Experiential learning opportunities—co-ops, internships and volunteer activities, for example—have the potential to help people develop knowledge and abilities in unique ways, and with them come a host of other useful rewards tied directly to career development.
Develop skills and confidence: Whether it’s by sitting on a committee, supporting logistics at an event or tutoring for a difficult class, you can develop specific practical skills by volunteering. And in this way, volunteering directly supports career development. When you do something you’ve never done before or interact with people in a foreign environment, you inevitably develop your capacity for self-appraisal, which is invaluable to personal development and allows you to be intentional when working to cultivate skills in the future.
Discover and learn: By being actively engaged in learning experiences with others, as opposed to sitting in a cubicle or studying solo, you give yourself the opportunity to learn from, as some educators put it, natural consequences. You may make real mistakes that you can learn from; you may realize hidden talents; you might discover the type of physical and cultural environment where you will flourish. These are all things that can only happen when you are rubbing elbows, as the saying goes, with peers, and you are invested in a tangible activity.
Differentiate yourself: Real-world experiences are the vehicle through which you create your story, your personal culture, or your narrative—the details that are going to differentiate you from everybody else in your industry. When students ask me to review their resumés or cover letters, I implore them to write down the things that nobody else can. I say, “If everybody has a degree, then nobody has a degree.” They must communicate the merits of their exclusive mix of skills, knowledge and experiences for the position they’re applying for. But to do this, you must indeed have a unique mix, and you must recognize that experiential learning opportunities are the perfect avenue for both applying and begetting knowledge about both yourself and the world around you.
How has volunteering impacted your career path? Share your story with email@example.com and be featured on the CO blog!