Volunteering for college events provides lessons that no classroom lecture can give you.
At the university where I work, it’s conference season. The December break is consumed by a series of meetings — local, national and international. The upside is that the campus plays host to well known experts from a variety of disciplines, the names that dot the books and academic papers students are expected to read. The downside — and yes, there is always one — is that we all have to work overtime to make things happen.
Student volunteers form an important part of these events. They know the campus better than most of the teachers; they have the energy to run around and get things done; and they are able to charm the visitors with their youth and enthusiasm. Campus conferences draw a lot of energy from young people helping out. This week was not exception. The handful of volunteers who answered my call for help, were key to the success of the conference. They helped plan, print and put up posters; they ensured the computers in all the meeting rooms were working; they lugged boxes of water bottles… in short, they took care of all the little details. Strangely enough, they all looked like they were having a good time doing all this work!
I asked a few of them why they had offered to help with the conference. “Well, it’s vacation period, and it’s a useful way to spend our time,” said one student. “We’re planning a student event next year, and I thought this would help me understand the process,” said another.
The next question was: what did they get out of it? “It helped me appreciate the level of detail that goes into conference organisation,” said one doctoral student. “It was fun to watch people make their presentations, and to see how they handled questions,” said one masters student. “I was a little upset that I had to work and couldn’t listen to all the speakers,” said a third.
Volunteering, by definition, does not pay (money, that is). But it can pay a whole lot in the long run. By the end of the three-day conference mentioned above, all the students seemed tired but happy.
While the tangible outcome of volunteering may be just a line on a resume or a certificate, the intangible benefits are many. Apart from making several new friends, they had made an impression not only on the people they knew (their own teachers), but also on others with whom they had interacted. One of the conference committee members appreciated the commitment and efficiency they had shown, saying that she would be happy to take any of them on as interns at her own organisation. They had ring-side views of people who are usually very difficult to meet, and had many opportunities to chat with them informally, at coffee breaks, lunch, or sometimes just while they were waiting to give their talks in the seminar rooms. Volunteers gain an insider view, of the professional or academic field, of the process of conference organisation, and of the scholarly process of presenting research. These are valuable lessons that no classroom lecture can give you.
How does all this help in the long run? The contacts you make at such events are likely to stand in good stead when you apply for jobs or internships, for instance. All of us are more likely to respond to communications that come from people we have some familiarity with. As a volunteer, you have demonstrated initiative and commitment — both of which are qualities that are valued in the job market. You also have participated in something that is a little outside the narrow confines of your academic programme — which shows that you are willing to venture into unfamiliar territory, something that does not give you a direct payback.
Volunteering opportunities abound on university campuses. Apart from the several conferences and seminars that take place, there are a number of one-off events that require willing hands. Usually, one sees the same small group of individuals helping out at all these events, and their names and faces stick with you, making them stand out against the large unnamed masses of students one encounters daily.
Yes, volunteering does take that much more energy and space to give one’s time to something that doesn’t relate directly to your coursework and what you see as your immediate professional goals. But you’ll find that many people who have gone on to achieve success in their chosen fields are those who did put in this extra bit of effort. And, like the volunteers I had last week, you will find that it can be a lot of fun.
The writer teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org