Volunteering: One of those things that everyone says is a good idea, but few people actually do. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just one-quarter of Americans over 16 years old had done community service in the past year. The age group least likely to volunteer? Young adults between 20 and 24-years-old. Only 18 percent of college-age people could say they’d volunteered even once in the past year.
It’s true that Americans of that age juggle many responsibilities already. Most of them are going to college, and hopefully they’ll graduate before turning 24. Graduation brings a host of other challenges and big decisions, such as finding a job or a grad school, adjusting to adult life and possibly getting married, which makes it easy to think that there’s no time for volunteering.
That doesn’t mean that volunteering shouldn’t be a priority, though. Here are six reasons why it’s worthwhile, no matter how busy your schedule is.
1. Time Is No Excuse
Schedules are busy in college, but schedules will always be busy. In fact, they’re likely to get more busy and less flexible once you graduate and (hopefully) have to work around the demands of a full-time job. If you start a family, you’ll have even less time for projects outside the house.
Obviously, it’s not impossible to volunteer even with jobs and small children, but it is harder. As busy as college is, it’s probably the least scheduled time you have before retirement. It’s also worth remembering that community service doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment. Donating blood, for example, takes a few hours at most. Projects like distributing lunches to homeless people or picking up trash along the road usually don’t expect you to sign up for the next event, although the organizers might ask you to.
2. Combat Selfishness
Caring for others isn’t necessarily restricted to community service, of course. If you have a friend going through a hard breakup or a relative struggling with poor health, your energies might be better spent supporting them than volunteering. Regardless of what form it takes, it is important to focus on others at least part of the time.
Spending all your time thinking about your concerns, your stresses and your plans is exhausting, and it feeds selfishness. The only reliable method of destroying selfishness is sacrificing your interests — which includes your time — to the interests of other people. Since friends and family won’t always need support, community service provides a more consistent opportunity to break selfish habits and become a better person.
3. Fresh Eyes
Volunteering gives you some perspective on college life. Even in America people are struggling — some can’t afford groceries, can’t read or don’t have a place to live. Seeing such needs makes college stressors like papers and exams seem smaller.
Also, if you’re tempted to focus too much on your schoolwork, getting away from the books to do some hands-on work is a good reminder that there are important things in life besides academic achievement.
4. Professional Boost
Volunteering won’t make you any money, but it can get you work experience, which might be more focused than you expect. For example, my college runs a program where students in the Classics department volunteer in private elementary schools teaching Latin.
The Classics students get teaching experience, the schools get free teachers and the kids get a good introduction to Latin. Not all volunteer experience is this applicable, but you might be surprised at what’s available. Even in a smaller city, there will be museums wanting docents, hospitals needing receptionists and zoos looking for event staff, which would all supply noteworthy résumé material.
5. Job-search Filter
If you get a volunteer position related to your desired career, it will help you figure out whether you really want that career or not. In high school, I volunteered as a teacher’s aide partly because I wanted to see what a teacher’s job was like.
After two years of helping my teacher handle the massive stacks of handouts needing organization and the hefty tote bags full of essays and quizzes needing to be graded, I decided I don’t want to teach for a living.
On the other hand, my sister discovered through volunteering at a day camp for elementary school kids that she is good at working with small children and keeping activities running smoothly. This summer, she landed a part-time job as the art director for a similar camp.
6. Feel Better
Several studies have been done on the relationship between people’s physical and emotional health and the amount of time they spend on community service. One study reported that a full 94 percent of its subjects felt happier after volunteering. Another, from Carnegie Mellon, found that volunteering frequently was correlated with better cardiovascular health.
Various explanations have been given for these benefits, such as improved self-esteem, the satisfaction of doing meaningful work or volunteers already being disposed to take care of themselves, but the reason is less important than the effect.
Adding volunteering to your to-do list might cause stress sometimes as you try to figure out how to finish it all, but volunteering itself can relieve stress. It helps if your volunteer job involves activities you love doing anyway, which some positions will.
As the American Red Cross likes to say, “The need is constant.” Volunteer causes always need workers, and young, strong, healthy people are ideal. If you’re feeling inspired, some nonprofit organizations try to make it easy for college students to participate. Dorms, sororities and fraternities often host volunteering competitions among their members and sometimes among the campus at large.
If your school is in or near a city, there are undoubtedly plenty of low-commitment opportunities outside campus to get involved in, like food pantries, fundraising walks or races, Meals on Wheels deliveries and animal shelters needing dog walkers. Consider signing up for one activity, to start with. If you agree it’s worthwhile, then you can give it more time.