Two days before Thanksgiving in 2019, after completing a stress-inducing application process, I received an invitation to join the Peace Corps. Fast forward to early March, when I’ve just begun tying up loose ends in preparation for my May departure. But departure never came; instead, on April 8 I received an official notice informing me that all outgoing volunteering opportunities would be postponed due to COVID-19 until further notice. With my future seemingly slipping through my fingers, I did what any pissed-off, almost-graduated college student would do — have a slight mental breakdown — and then regrouped.
Deciding to take this roadblock as a sign, I threw myself back into school, changed my major and completely remapped my future goals. I’m telling you all of this because, while the Peace Corps was no longer a viable option, my new path still required me to become a volunteer. Looking back, I’m now monumentally grateful, as I’ve been lucky enough to try out both interning and volunteering and can definitively say that each is essential in their own way — but here’s why.
Early in my college career, I was given the sage advice to intern and intern often. I took that advice to heart, and it has served me incredibly well. By definition, an internship is an opportunity given to a student that provides essential experience for a particular field.
Through this experience, students gain a more in-depth insight into the inner workings of specific roles. Benefits to this real-time, candid look at prospective careers include the attainment of invaluable knowledge pertaining to a specific field and evidence of your competency in said field. With this newly acquired, comprehensive knowledge, students are afforded the opportunity for introspection, or what some might term as a “come-to-Jesus” moment.
All this awareness comes at the low cost of your free time, as most internships are unpaid, and while being paid for the fruits of one’s labor is obviously ideal, the fact that compensation doesn’t always apply to internships doesn’t discount how worthwhile they are.
The acceptance of unpaid labor in exchange for experience and skill building is what sets interning apart from volunteering. There are many defining elements to volunteering, but essentially, it’s using an individual’s time and abilities to aid others. This translates to providing a service to either a community, an organization or a cause. The decision of what a person should dedicate their time and efforts to depends on what causes an individual deems worthy. Here are 10 primary reasons behind why someone volunteers:
- They have personal ties to a particular cause.
- To build up their resume.
- To set a good example for others to follow.
- To meet like-minded people.
- To encounter unique and exciting experiences.
- To gain a better perspective and self-awareness.
- To learn new skills.
- To gain real-world experience.
- To make an impact.
- To support a cause you’re passionate about and believe in.
With a better understanding as to why volunteering is so important, let’s take a look at the different volunteer sectors and the type of opportunities available in each.
Social and Legal Services
The legal portion of this branch refers mainly to providing pro bono legal assistance. However, doing administrative work for a legal office that provides free legal assistance is an option for non-lawyers. Volunteer social services range from aiding veterans or helping out at a hospice facility to becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).
Civic and Environmental Advocacy
Opportunities to give back to the environment are vast. These include protecting public lands by volunteering with the National Park Service as well as aiding wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organizations. Communal volunteer opportunities come in a variety of forms too, including installing water catchment systems at a local school or solar panels at a low-cost health clinic.
Arts and Culture
This area is a little narrower, as you must bring a skill to the table to provide this service. But if you do know how to dance, draw, videograph or employ any other artistic abilities, there are a ton of community-based opportunities to volunteer for.
There are two main routes with educational volunteering opportunities: providing aid for a one-time event or participating in an ongoing program.
In health services, volunteer opportunities hinge on your education and experience. If you fit the required criteria, you could help out at a multitude of sites, including long-term care facilities, laboratories or even nursing homes.
International Relations and Development
The international relations and development section is probably the most wide-ranging in variety. This area includes many organizations from AmeriCorps to the Red Cross Committee, so there are opportunities to inspire everyone.
The choices are endless, and with so many options, you can take volunteering as an opportunity to either help a cause you care about deeply or learn about something new. It’s important to keep in mind that both volunteering and interning are important to build your desired skill set, network in your potential career field and attain a sense of purpose.
A deeper understanding of the various walks of life is just one of the amazing results of volunteering. This understanding goes hand in hand with gaining a better outlook on life, which in turn can boost your mood and your health.
As I stated before, taking the role of an intern or a volunteer doesn’t cancel the other out, so it’s imperative to do both. Great resources include www.volunteermatch.org, which can aid in finding volunteer opportunities. To search through available internships in your area, visit www.internships.com, a site that also gives you the ability to narrow your results to meet certain criteria.
Regardless of what you decide, choose something, because nothing acts as a substitute to experience, and the more you have, the further you’ll go.
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