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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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!

The Benefits of Conducting Research with a Faculty Member

One of the best things you can do while you are in college is to get involved in research. You might think that you can only do this at a large university, where there is an active graduate program. However, it is likely the case that most full-time faculty members, even at four-year colleges with only undergraduates, are conducting some kind of research. It may even be the case that community college faculty are active researchers.

Keep in mind that faculty and undergraduate student research on campus go hand-in-hand. This research is highly encouraged and undergraduates (from freshmen to seniors) across all subject areas take advantage of this opportunity. Moreover, faculty members want undergraduates to be involved in what they are investigating.

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There are at least four advantages for getting involved with faculty research, all of which will positively impact your experience while in college and well-beyond graduation. First, you will have the chance to be part of exciting discoveries and to learn new ideas outside of a classroom. When you work with a faculty member you are really involved with the “nuts and bolts” of research. You’re not just reading about the research, you are actually conducting in-depth inquiry and exploration. Second, when it comes time to graduate you will be well beyond your peers in terms of career and academic preparedness. Third, working directly with a professor will help build a professional network for your field of interest. If graduate or professional school is a personal goal of yours, undergraduate research participation and connections with faculty will aid in that pursuit. Research experience will show your dedication and motivation. Finally, related to the previous point you will be able to get a letter of recommendation from your mentor. These letters are extremely important, whether you are applying to graduate or professional school or you are applying for a job.

To get involved with a faculty member’s research is usually pretty simple:

1) Check out the type of research that a faculty member is conducting. Of course, with the Internet finding this out is easy. If a particular faculty member is conducting research you think is interesting you are set to move forward.

2) Contact the faculty member you want to work with to see if they are planning to work with new students. If they are, set up a time to meet in person. You can send them an email to make first contact, but to me I don’t see a problem if you decide to stop by their office during office hours to make initial contact. I will say, however, that when you stop by a faculty member’s office you might consider getting “dressed-up” just a bit—first impressions go along way.

3) Meet with them. When you actually get together with a potential mentor, be ready to talk—don’t go to the meeting unprepared. Read up more on what the faculty member has been studying and be prepared with questions. Let the faculty member see that not only are you interested in their research, but that you are able to have an adult-to-adult conversation.

4) Discuss possible ways you can work with this faculty member. These include volunteering, getting course credit as part of an Independent Studies course, or even doing an Honors project (usually reserved for seniors). The key is that there are usually several ways you can work with this faculty member.

As a faculty member I have really enjoyed working with undergraduates in my lab. I’m proud to say that most of these students have gone on to graduate school, law school, or professional school. Like them, I feel you too can benefit from getting involved in undergraduate research.

Consider a Study Group

Getting all your studying done can be a real drag, but one way to make it easier is to join a study group. Here are some reasons why you might want to consider studying with others at least some of the time.

1) A study group can test you on the material. You can test yourself, but maybe you’ll be tempted to get a bit lazy about this—moving to the next item when you feel sure you know something. It’s easier for someone else, like a classmate in a study group, to be tough and make sure you have the right answer before moving on.

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2) Most students don’t have a very regimented study schedule, only studying when they feel they have the time, and therefore missing or avoiding studying. When you’re in a study group, your schedule is strictly determined. If the group meets on Tuesday and Thursday at 9 PM, then that’s when you are going to study; you can’t keep rescheduling your study time and get off track.

3) A less obvious benefit of a study group is that you can compare your notes with those of other members of the group to make sure your notes are complete. During class, it’s easy to miss important material that might be on the exam because you were thinking about something else. In your study group, it’s unlikely that everyone missed the same part of the lecture.

4) You can discuss the class material with those who think differently from you and who each bring unique strengths to the group. Your classmates may understand certain things better than you, and be able to explain them to you. This will make your study session go faster.

5) In a study group, you will have to clearly explain things so that everyone in the group can follow. Because others depend on your ability to explain things, this will push you to thoroughly learn the material.

6) A study group can help build friendships. I always preach that college is a time to grow intellectually, but also a time to grow personally. You can get to know others as you learn material and hopefully become good friends with them—and the friendships you make in college can last a lifetime.

In closing: I understand that some of you only want to study by yourselves. Please consider what I have said, and think carefully about your decision. For some of you, studying with others can really pay off.

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!