Thursday, January 6, 2011

Grad Students and Volunteering: A Retrospective

One of last year's New Years Resolutions was "volunteer more". And volunteer more I did, but it wasn't always easy. Shockingly, one of the major hurdles I faced was finding appropriate organizations which could actually utilize my skills. There are several issues that graduate students face when it comes to getting involved with charities:

1) We're often broke. I can't give money. Some weeks it's like, "No, I can't put a dollar in your box, ringy-bell-Santa, because that dollar is going to feed me lunch today." So I have to rule out groups that need money more than manpower.

2) We're not always around. Things like school breaks, research trips, and conferences mean that I'm missing for chunks of the year. I have to scratch off orgs that need me to be there at 9 am sharp every week, no excuses.

3) We can be wary of taking on too much. I know I will get the flu next semester, and when that happens, I go into survival mode. I only go from my bed to school and then right back to bed, all the while sucking down Airborne and Saltines. Then there's exam periods, last-minute meetings, that student randomly showing up for help...

My conclusion is that often the best volunteering opportunities for graduate students are those where there's a big return for an hour of time. So I went off in search of high-impact-for-your-minute activities. A few things I tried last year:

-I took pictures of animals at an animal shelter for their website. In an hour I could take and process photos for about 12-15 animals, and the numbers show that web exposure increased adoption chances.

-I wrote holiday cards to troops abroad. In one hour I could write, address, and mail about 10 cards, and cost me only for the 42-cent stamps and the paper.

-I took part in a park clean-up. Nice weather, friendly people, they gave us water bottles, and after a few one-hour sessions the park looked great and free of horrible stuff.

-I volunteered to help out at the church Christmas pageant. In one hour I realized that it was going to be a mess, but the parents would like it anyway, and then I finished the wise man outfit.

My main advice for people looking to volunteer is to find organizations that are flexible. With the animal shelter, I came in as often as I could, but they didn't have a problem with me being gone for weeks at a time. The letters to the troops could be completed at home, on a plane, anywhere. Look for an organization that actually wants volunteers and knows how to coordinate them. Your school might have some kind of community service organization that can help with this. Finally, pick something you actually like, whether it's kids, soup kitchens, or web design. It's easier to stick with it and get something out of it that way.

And good luck generally as we formulate plans for taking on this year's resolutions!

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