The Benefits of Volunteering in College

When I step back and look at what types of activities help lead to success for students in college, I am struck by how many of the most successful students have done volunteer (community service) work while they were in college. This volunteering is quite varied and includes disaster relief, working in a church daycare center, helping on a cancer ward, being a server in a soup kitchen, tutoring, working at a rape crisis center, being involved in a political campaign, etc. Before getting into the benefits of volunteering I need to be clear that volunteering, by definition, is doing work for free. Thus, if you are unable to work for free or feel that your time is too valuable to not get paid, then you will have to think of other activities that can help you succeed in college and beyond. I also want to add that it is great if you can volunteer with some organization that is related to your ultimate career goal, but any kind of volunteering has its benefits.

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As far as numbers, Google reported that “In 2010, 26.1 percent of college students around the United States volunteered, about on par with the overall percentage of Americans who volunteered that year. College student volunteerism peaked at 31.2 percent in 2004, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.”

It would be great if more students volunteered, and I hope this post gets more students to see that volunteering can be beneficial in so many ways. So, here goes:

1) Volunteer work stands out in your resume. Given that only about a quarter of college students volunteer your resume will likely increase your standing relative to your peers. It indicates a certain type of motivation that many other students will not be able to show.

2) When you volunteer, you are doing work that benefits the community and will make you feel good. Whether it is working at a food bank or picking up trash in a park you are improving your community. There is a great deal of self-satisfaction knowing you have helped others in your community.

3) Volunteering shows that you have good time-management skills. You are able to show that you could take on an unpaid position at the same time you are taking classes and participating in other activities.

4) Often, volunteering shows that you can be part of a team. This quality can be very important, especially to employers who expect their workers to be able to interact with others in the workplace. I should note that there are a number of companies that do volunteer work in the community. If you already have volunteer experience, you will likely stand out compared to other applicants.

5) Certain scholarships require community service to apply. Thus, volunteering may boost your ability to get financial aid.

6) When you volunteer you are almost certain to build networks among the people you meet. As you might imagine, these contacts can be an excellent resource when you are looking for a job or need a letter of recommendation. In addition, wherever you volunteer you will form social networks with people who have similar interests.

7) You are able to build on existing skills and develop new skills in a volunteer situation. For example, you might have some computer skills, but in your volunteer position you might learn new ways of using computers. In addition, there are often times when you volunteer when you need to think in new ways. You may have a meager budget but big obstacles to overcome. This can get you to think in creative ways to solve problems.

8) Volunteering offers you the opportunity to explore career options. You are able to check out different activities to give you an idea of what career path might be best for you. In addition, volunteering may let you know that a certain path is really not what you thought it would be.

9) When you are in a volunteer situation you often learn to lead. Although you might not think about this when you start volunteering, many organizations rely on volunteers to get things accomplished. Given the large number of volunteers, it is pretty common for someone (it could be you!) to be made the leader of a group. This may not be what you wanted when you first decided to volunteer, but keep in mind that gaining this leadership experience is a real positive.

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To find out where you can volunteer you just need to:

  • Talk to others
  • Check out http://www.volunteer.gov
  • Contact the Career Center on campus
  • Contact any non-profit organization or charity
  • Contact the Red Cross if there is a natural disaster (e.g., tornado)
  • Ask a religious leader

Also, you might consider volunteering with a friend so that you can make a difference together. In the end, I am confident that you will feel great about volunteering. Not only will it lead to a stronger resume, but more important it will lead to a stronger you!

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Getting Sick In College: What Should You Do?

Many students think that when they go to college they will never get sick or suffer any medical condition that might make them miss class. Sadly, this is almost never the case. Whether it is the common cold or a broken leg, there are times when you will have to face missing class due to some medical condition. What can be tough when this happens, is figuring out what you need to do as far as your classes.

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To begin thinking about all of this, I feel that there are several critical questions you need to get answered. First what is your school’s policy concerning excused absences and medical conditions? For example, many schools will excuse you for a medical condition, but you need official documentation of your condition. This documentation is some letter, memo, etc. from a doctor or school health clinic—it is not a note from your parents. To find out your school’s policy on this point and other issues I will discuss you need to check an official school document. This is a case where you don’t just ask a friend or even your Instructor, you need get the official information yourself. I am sure that a quick search of the Internet, using keywords like “excused absence” and your school’s name will lead you to the information you need.

At this point, it is important to note that your school’s policy will typically not distinguish between different medical conditions. This could mean that a cold is typically viewed the same as have mono—sick is sick. The problem with your school thinking this way is that you are probably like most people and think that only some medical conditions are worthy of going to a doctor. That is, if you wake up with a cold it probably does not seem worth taking the time to visit a clinic or paying a clinic fee. Unlike a more serious illness, the cold will likely go away regardless of going to the clinic or not. You can also argue that it is better to hang at home for a minor illness because (a) it will be tough to pay attention when you feel so bad, (b) you want to get better quickly by resting and drinking plenty of fluids, and (c) you don’t may spread your germs to others.

Second, if you are miss class due to an illness are you required to inform the Instructor? Typically, the answer is yes. The reason for this is that being excused from class does not excuse you from the work you missed. Thus, if you do not make sure your Instructor knows why you missed class you will not get to make up any work and your grade of course will suffer. Remember, that just because you have an excused absence does not mean you get a free pass and a score of 100% on whatever graded activity you missed. I will add that (a) your schools probably has a time frame for informing your Instructor and (b) it is a good idea to contact your Instructor (e.g., via email) when you miss class.

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Third, is there any school policy that limits the number of excused absences you can have? You might think that if you have a serious illness and must miss a third of the semester, that’s not your fault and you should be able to make up the work you missed. It is likely, however, that your school has a policy that limits your excused absences to a certain percentage of classes in a semester. If you go beyond this limit you might be able to withdraw from a course or the Instructor may ask you to withdraw.

Fourth, are you always allowed to make up work you missed due to an excused absence? In general, you have the right to make up any graded work (e.g., a quiz or exam) you miss due to an excused sickness in the semester you are taking a course. However, there may be specific rules about this and certain circumstances (e.g., getting sick right before a final exam) may make this impossible. In addition, there is a real problem if the course you are taking has a participation requirement. If you are missing class due to an excused absence you of course cannot participate and your grade will suffer. Your school may have rules about how you can avoid losing points, but it may be that there is no reasonable way to make up participation points; you may lose these points.

Let me add one other very important point about making up work. Having an excused absence does not mean you have the right to receive notes from the Instructor because you missed class. Although your Instructor may give you notes you miss, don’t count on it and make sure you have some alternate plan for obtaining notes from a classmate.

Finally, be very clear what your Instructor has to say about excused absences. It might be that you have an Instructor who is pretty rigid and follows the school policy on all aspects of excused absences. There is really nothing you can do about this, because they are simply following the rules. However, you might have an Instructor who shows more flexibility. For example, I do not require documentation for every illness. However, I expect my students to contact me before or right after class when they are ill. In addition, I keep track of these undocumented excused absences so that I am not allowing students to miss a lot of classes—there is a point where I will need to see documentation.

Related to how your Instructor thinks about excused absences, always make sure you check the syllabus for each of your classes to see if anything is stated about excused absences. Your Instructor may or may not list their unique policies. As always, it is important to keep in mind that your Instructor is not required to list all of the school’s policies on excused absences—you are expected to be aware of these policies.

In closing, let me say that getting sick in college is a drag. It can put you behind and force you into playing catch-up. Still, I hope reading this post will get you thinking about how to deal with any sickness and help you figure out the best way to keep up with your studies.

Decisions, Decisions…Choosing a Major

          The Spring semester is ready to start and for many of you it is probably time to start thinking about choosing a major, or if you already have a major, deciding if your major is best for you. Just to be clear a major involves the concentrated study of a specialty area. These specialty areas are referred to as “disciplines”. Psychology is a discipline. Similarly, disciplines include English, Hispanic Studies, Economics, Mechanical Engineering…I think you get the picture! It is possible to have two majors–a “double-major” for those who have two primary interests.

student&computer-15812_1920          It would be nice if I could simply tell you what to major in, but that decision has to be yours (no matter how much your parents think it should be their decision!). For some of you choosing a major will be relatively easy. Let’s say you want to be an accountant, you will major in Accounting. In this example, your major allows you to enter a profession upon graduating. This example is what we call a “vocational major” and it involves an applied career. Other vocational majors include Nursing, Education, Architecture, Engineering, and Journalism.

          There may be some of you who are also clear on your professional career goals in other fields. As examples, you may be interested in Medicine (not just being a doctor, but a physician’s assistant or physical therapist), Dentistry, or Law. You should understand that there is not a major (e.g., “medical doctor” major) for any of the careers just listed. If you have one of these career goals you will typically choose a major in a discipline directly related to Medicine (e.g., Biology or Chemistry), Dentistry (e.g., Biology or Chemistry), or Law (e.g., Political Science). After graduating with your undergraduate degree, you will then apply to a specific “professional school” to get a graduate degree. For example, if you want to be a doctor you will hopefully get into a medical school and graduate with a graduate degree—an M.D. (Medical Doctor). All of these fields have changed quite a bit in recent years and you do not necessarily have to major in a directly related field. In fact, you can major in anything as long as the courses you take meet the requirements of the medical school, dental school, or law school you would like to attend. As an example, I can tell you that there are an ever-increasing number of Psychology majors who apply to medical school and law school.

          Unlike the examples of specific careers above, it is important to keep in mind that most majors prepare you for a range of job opportunities and professions. For example, if you decide to major in History the job opportunities include: advertising executive, analyst, archivist, broadcaster, campaign worker, consultant, congressional aide, editor, foreign service officer, foundation staffer, information specialist, intelligence agent, journalist, legal assistant, lobbyist, personnel manager, public relations staffer, researcher, and teacher. For many students, having a major with multiple career options is a real advantage.

          If you really do not know what to major in, try to keep calm about it. You will start college as “Undeclared” or “Undecided”, but you will be fine for two reasons. First, at most four-year colleges and universities, you are not required to declare a major until the end of your sophomore year. Second, it is important that you take the time and effort necessary to make an informed choice. This way, in the end you will be rewarded with a major that will help guide you to a successful career. Exploring different majors will require some research, including reading about different majors, talking to others students and faculty and even taking a course in various majors. Other ways to help you decide about majoring is searching the Internet, reading about different majors, talking to your academic advisor, talking to your parents, going to the Career Center on campus, attending meetings of student organizations and clubs, and reading campus bulletins. One thing I will add about taking classes in different disciplines is that while all students seem to know what certain majors are about (e.g., Biology and Psychology), until you take an Anthropology or a Geology course you may not really understand what career possibilities there are in these lesser known majors. As a student said to me, “When I came to college I didn’t have my major chosen and I would  advise    people to explore. Say you do know what your major is, still explore different classes. That’s what your first two years are for. Then if you don’t like your major you’ve already found out. You don’t want to find out your senior year.” A faculty colleague also said to me: “Shop around! Take a broad assortment of classes and see what is the best fit. Don’t be afraid to try out a class that you think you might hate. Make sure that you pick a major that will help you think about the world in a new way.”

          There is one final point to make about majors: Changing your major is not the end of the world. On the one hand, it is OK to change your major because it is critical that you decide on a major that is best for you. In fact, some students will change majors several times before deciding on a good fit. On the other hand, it is important to understand that when you change majors you always risk delaying your graduation date, hopefully by just a little but possibly by a lot. This may occur because certain courses you need for one major do not fulfill requirements for another major. In addition, your new major may require additional courses to be taken. Of course, you should check out all requirements for a major you like and discuss the implications of switching majors with your academic advisor.

Connect With Your Academic Advisor

The end of the semester is already here for some of you. For many others, it’s finals week. For those with finals, I hope everything goes well. Here’s something to think about once you’re finals are done: interacting with your academic advisor.

All students should have an academic advisor—either a staff member or a faculty member (I’m an advisor myself). How should this advisor be helping you during your time in college? If you get on your college’s advising website you will likely see a mission statement. These mission statements generally boil down to two points: an advisor is there to (1) help you develop a plan to make sure you take all the classes you need to graduate and (2) help you move forward with your personal and career goals. The latter can involve presenting certain course options that may be important to your goals as well as providing you with important resources about your plans after college.

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Always keep in mind that advisors are there only to help. Students too often think that advisors are there to make final decisions. This is false. In the end, it’s you, the student, who must make any decision, whether it’s about what courses to take or what career path to follow, even though these decisions can sometimes be quite difficult. Your advisor is there to help you get all the information you need to make these decisions.

Some students don’t understand how valuable an advisor can be. I’ve heard some of them even say that they avoid talking their advisor. I would like to appeal to all students to think about their advisor in a much more positive way; your advisor can help you in so many ways. Here are a few quick pointers to keep in mind when you interact with your advisor:

 1) Try to get to know your advisor by meeting with them more often than just around registration time. Because money is tight on most campuses, your advisor likely has more advisees than they should, and has to meet with many of them to talk about registration. Therefore, if you want to have a meaningful conversation with them, it’s best to arrange a meeting at some other time. Also, don’t think that you’re being an annoyance to your advisor by setting up a meeting. This is what advisors are paid to do.

2) Plan what you’re going to talk about with your advisor. Advising is a two-way street. If you meet with your advisor and only they speak it really is not going to benefit you. You should always have some questions for your advisor when you sit down to talk.

3) Remember that advising involves BOTH course requirements and career planning. Make sure to talk about both of them with your advisor. It’s easy to get too preoccupied with the courses you need to take. Career planning starts as soon as you get into college and all of your advising meetings should involve some career discussion.

 4) Your advisor will have a lot of information for you, which will be up-to-date and accurate. For this reason, I’d be very wary of getting advising help from other students, siblings or your parents. All of these people want to help you out, but that doesn’t stop them from being wrong. I’ve seen students who told me that their sibling said that a certain class was required when they went to school—but that information was out of date.

5) If things aren’t working out with your advisor, consider switching to a different one. Sometimes we have a tough time interacting with certain people—the dynamics we need just aren’t there. This may be true between you and your advisor. Also, some advisors might not be very good at giving you information about your classes and future career. Switching to a new advisor can help you get back on track.

I hope these pointers are helpful, and that you will have a great working relationship with your advisor. Enjoy the Holiday Break and I will be back with a new post at the start of 2016!

Get Your Sleep!

During my 27 years of teaching, I’ve often looked around my large class (400-500 students) and seen a student sleeping. I’d prefer that they were awake, but I still have some sympathy; college demands a lot of work, which can lead to staying up late reading and studying. As if this wasn’t enough, some students work outside jobs, are athletes, or participate in other activities like music. At college, sleep is in short supply.


This means that it’s important for you to get enough of it. On average, college students need to get about 8 hours of sleep a night, but the research shows that undergrads sleep 1-2 hours less than that. Staying up late on school nights and sleeping late on weekends messes with students’ internal clocks and makes the little sleep they get even less restful.

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According to the National Sleep Foundation, lack of sleep leads to poor health. Less sleep can:
1) Increase stress
2) Contribute to acne and other skin problems
3) Lead to aggressive or inappropriate behavior, like being impatient or angry
4) Cause you to gain weight because of unhealthy eating habits
5) Heighten the effects of alcohol and possibly increase your use of caffeine and nicotine
6) Weaken your immune system and therefore contribute to illness

Lack of sleep can also hurt your performance in the classroom. If you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll have a tougher time paying attention, which will make it harder to study and learn material for exams. On top of this, lack of sleep will make taking the exams themselves harder—if you’re even able to get there on time. Too many students have come to my office, out of breath, saying that they were up all night studying, fell asleep, and failed to get up in time to take an exam.

If you want to have fun in college and also succeed in class, get enough sleep. Don’t avoid sleep by using caffeine and nicotine. These are stimulants, which means that they might help you stay awake in the short term, but don’t make you any more rested. Also, alcohol might help you fall asleep quickly, but your sleep will be disrupted during the night. Finally, manage your time as well as you can, so that you won’t even feel like you need to stay up all night.

By getting enough sleep you’ll feel better in both body and mind, continue to enjoy college life, and get good grades in your classes.

Special Guest Writer–Dr. Diane Snow: Combine and Conquer – Using Peer Groups to Achieve

This past Spring, I had the great fortune of traveling to China with numerous UK faculty colleagues. There were so many interesting, yet unfamiliar and daunting experiences.

I was awed and amazed by the Great Wall, and imagined what life must have been like when people roamed the endless steps and towers through their normal daily lives. There were places where the slope of the steps was negligible and climbing was easy. I barely had to pay attention to where or how I was walking, and discourse with others was relaxed. However, there were places where the steps were not adequately deep, forcing me to climb with only my toes to progress. In some cases, the rise of step after step was enormous, and I had to use of all four limbs and a lot of attention to the task to make the trek—truly demanding work.

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It occurs to me now these steps could be seen as a metaphor for the transition from high school to college—an unpredictable and variable journey. Having been a “big fish in a small pond” in my high school, I found the workload unremarkable, and my effort was commensurate. Getting an A in each class did not make me winded. But all of a sudden, there appeared in college a much steeper climb. Courses no longer required just the reading of a chapter by the end of the week, but the reading of a book and a reflective paper in that same span. There was no longer an emphasis on introduction, but a focus on depth, breadth and integration.

While I found this challenge exhilarating, and stepped up my game, this new world view was daunting and presented a paradigm shift. Although early college days are long in my rearview mirror, I still remember the way I coped with this trial of increased volume and demand—networking and team-building. I intentionally reached out and met new people, studied with them, and learned with them. We tested the new waters as a team. We divided up the work, talked about each of our contributions, learned from one another, and solved problems together. We helped each other during triumphs and “face plants” as well, and somehow, we all made it—together. The task felt more manageable when others were facing the same challenges, had the same vision, and agreed to work through it step by step in a unified effort. Likewise, the accomplishments, when they came, were a shared victory and an award that made us stronger and more capable for the next challenge.

So as you’re climbing your Great Wall, don’t feel you need to be a weathered and independent traveler just yet. After all, in a tourist spot like that, there are thousands of friendships just waiting to be made, and so many worthy journeys to take!

Special Guest Writer-Casey Magyarics (graduate student): Writing an Email to Your Instructor

Writing an email might sound like an easy thing to do, especially since we all spend so much time writing text messages, but writing an email to a professor or TA is very different from writing a text message. When you’re writing an email to a professor, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

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1. State your name and what class you’re taking. Your professors likely teach more than one course and they can’t keep track of everyone. If you tell your professors who you are and what class you’re taking with them, you’ll probably get a much better response.

2. Clearly explain your issue or question. Don’t just say that you need help with an assignment, be specific about the question you have. Make sure you have looked at the syllabus or assignment guidelines clearly before asking your professor or TA for help.

3. Be respectful! This is very simple, but it can really help you out. Everyone is busy, so if you are appreciative of your instructor’s time, they are probably going to be more willing to answer take care of your concern/question thoroughly.

4. Use professional language and grammar. This is where writing an email to a professor and text messaging are very different. You will want to use proper grammar and sentence structure. Don’t use things like jk, lol, !!!???, or emojis.

5. Don’t act like your instructor owes you anything. Your instructor may not be willing to provide students with their presentations or notes, so it’s important that you not act like you’re entitled to these privileges. Same thing goes for extensions on assignments, etc.

These 5 pieces of advice can really help you create a positive relationship with your instructor through email. Remember that you might need to contact these people when it comes to bumping your grade up from a B to an A at the end of the semester or when you need a recommendation letter for a scholarship or grad school. Plus, it’s always nice to treat your instructors with the same respect that you expect from them.