The importance of volunteering was ingrained in me at a young age. In elementary school, our class was taught that volunteering is a great way to learn responsibility and give back to the community. But for us to really appreciate the impact volunteering has on others, my peers and I were pushed to put this knowledge into practice. This is why Ontario high school students are required to complete 40 hours of volunteer and community service work in order to get their diploma. And while it’s important to understand the theoretical reasons for committing unpaid time to a project or cause—and many students do understand—it’s equally important, and I would also say motivating, to recognize the practical ways in which volunteering can support your career development. Below I outline the four reasons I encourage students to volunteer.
Develop skills and confidence
Whether it’s by sitting on a committee, supporting logistics at an event or tutoring for a difficult chemistry class, the potential to develop your skills—verbal communication, critical thinking or interpersonal abilities, for example—is perhaps the most obvious way in which volunteering can help with career development. When you do something you’ve never done before or interact with people in a foreign work environment, you inevitably gain a huge amount of self-awareness. This self-awareness is invaluable to your personal development, and it will allow you to be more intentional when working to cultivate more specific skills.
Discover hidden talents
The next best thing to learning skills is discovering ones you weren’t aware that you already had. What I mean is that you may be good at something you never considered to be valuable, or just never thought was an actual “skill.” For example, imagine a journalism student who, while acting as a volunteer writer, realizes that she also has a knack for strategic planning and idea generation. Or picture a psychology student giving his time to do data entry at the local hospital. He creates a more efficient process for getting his tasks done, and thus realizes an aptitude for critical thinking. To make these discoveries you need to try new things—you need to get involved. Luckily, for undergraduate students, unique volunteer opportunities are readily available.
Learn what you like in a workplace (and what you don’t like)
A few weeks ago Ruvini Godakandae wrote about “Cultural Fit” and How to Find It. She discussed elements of what it is (“the overall tone of a company”) and why it’s important (“your productivity, happiness and decision to stay with the company” will be affected by it). But how do you decide what kind of culture you want in an organization if you have no formal work experience? You need to spend time in multiple organizations, even if it is unpaid time. By exposing yourself to different supervision styles, distinct team and individual dynamics, and various levels of independence while volunteering, you can start to establish what type of work environment you’ll feel most comfortable in.
Build your professional network
Building an extensive professional network is crucial for students who want to enter the job market as soon as they complete their degree. Indeed, it’s not always about what you know, but who you know. In addition to the benefits of new skills and experiences, volunteering your time allows you the opportunity to make connections and expand your network.
When it comes time for you to apply for jobs, one of the most valuable assets you can have are solid relationships with senior professionals and peers—people who can vouch for you. Volunteering your time and demonstrating initiative is a surefire way to build rapport with individuals in your preferred industry, and it’s an effective way to grow your reference list.