Both as career development professionals and in our personal lives, service learning and volunteering has served an important role. In our work at the Wasserman Center for Career Development of New York University (NYU), we strive to create a culture of civic engagement through promoting the importance of voting; highlighting employers that do important social justice work; and speaking to students about the skills that can be gained through volunteer work. Additionally, we have both served as staff advisors for “alternative” spring break trips focused on social justice issues all over the world and partnered with NYU’s service office to share individual volunteer opportunities and “days of service” with fellow staff and students.
Based on the many ways we have witnessed service work impact and enhance our careers and our students’ journeys, we would like to highlight a few key takeaways around the benefits of service and volunteering (based on the NACE Career Readiness Competencies). We encourage you to share these with your students to make volunteer work and service learning a focal component of their career exploration and skill development.
- Service learning and volunteer work can help students learn how to work with people from many backgrounds and experiences. This allows students to interact effectively with colleagues in the workplace, which is in line with the NACE competencies Communication, Career & Self-Development, and Teamwork. Below are some takeaways that students can implement when displaying these competencies:
- Encourage students to socialize with others when they volunteer (if the activity allows for this). It could be as simple as asking them what brought them to volunteer or how this work impacts their life.
- Recommend that students volunteering for an organization that they feel connected to, which helps them to network in a safe way. They can also start to identify workplace cultures in which they feel comfortable or want to stay away from. Volunteering is, at its core, a learning experience, so through continuous learning and exploration, students can understand themselves better in the context of their skills and competencies for the workplace.
- Service work often allows students to interact with a variety of people from different backgrounds and perspectives. This supports the development of communication skills, knowledge of how to work on teams, and understanding of cultural nuances. If they volunteer abroad, they might be able to pick up a different language!
- Traditional jobs and internships aren’t the only way to build skills. It is important to help students debunk that myth and understand that volunteer work is a valuable experiential learning activity that will help them gain the skills they need to be successful in the workplace.
- Volunteering often allows students to gain a deeper understanding of how certain organizations and companies impact their community. This is in line with the NACE competency Equity & Inclusion. Some takeaways that students can implement when displaying this competency are:
- Remind students that the work we do and the choices we make inside or outside of work can impact others in positive or negative ways.
- Finding a future employer that aligns with one’s values and contributes to society in a positive way could be one of the greatest benefits of finding a meaningful career.
- Many organizations are placing a greater emphasis on social justice and belonging in the workplace. Therefore, a student who can demonstrate that they have helped to create structural changes that positively impact vulnerable groups could have an advantage in the job search process. This is especially critical for students entering a helping profession. They should include volunteer activities on their résumés to demonstrate their commitment to specific causes and/or communities.
- Service activities allow students to grow as leaders and to be put into a variety of situations that enhance analytical thinking. These are extremely valuable skills that employers often look for in the workplace and in line with the NACE competencies Critical Thinking and Leadership. Some takeaways to share with students include:
- Ask students to think outside the box and get creative when it comes to service work. They can collaborate with their community members on new projects, such as a service program/trip, to include their classmates in the journey.
- Leaders help to fill gaps in their communities. Encourage students to do an assessment of issues that they see in their communities related to social justice, equal access, or infrastructure, just to name a few. Once they have a cause, they can write proposals, hold fundraisers, or create social media campaigns to bring attention to those causes.
In conclusion, service learning and volunteer work allow students to develop meaningful and tangible work-related skills and explore a variety of work environments. As career practitioners, we should encourage all students (not only those interested in helping/social services professions) to add volunteer experiences on their resumes, and to discuss the skills they are learning from these activities in interviews and networking events. In recent years, authenticity has become more important in workplace situations. Helping students feel comfortable discussing activities that they naturally gravitate towards and are excited about, will allow those students to come off as more authentic to employers, and could ultimately refine their ability to tell their own stories. Most importantly, we should also strive to help students become the best version of themselves and to contribute to society through their chosen careers. Highlighting volunteer experiences is a way to do this.
Haley Garofalo is assistant director, Employer Engagement & Communications at New York University Wasserman Center for Career Development.
Diana Mendez, Senior Assistant Director at New York University Wasserman Center for Career Development.