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How to Make the Most of Your Volunteer Experience

Find out how to make your volunteer experience last a lifetime.

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Pick the right project

Ask yourself:

  • What kinds of work would I like to do?
  • What groups would I like to help (such as children, seniors, animals)?
  • What social or environmental issues would I like to address?
  • How much time do I have to volunteer?
  • What do I want to get out of volunteering? A chance to meet people, make a difference, use a skill or talent, or gain professional experience and contacts?

Choose organizations.

Find organizations you're interested in, then:

  • Ask for a tour of the facility
  • Ask questions that interest you

Stretch beyond your comfort level.

Something you've never tried before could put you in contact with new groups and help you build new skills.

Relate, engage, go above & beyond

Relate effectively to the people you serve.

  • If you're working with the organization's clients, listen to them more than you talk. Listening validates others' experiences and helps them feel comfortable. Who knows? Maybe you'll learn some things as you listen.
  • Avoid extremely personal questions or questions that might embarrass clients.

Engage.

  • Go out of your way to interact with the people you're serving, other volunteers, and staff people.
  • Even if you're working on just a short project, sharing yourself can have a lasting impact on others.
  • Watch for lasting impacts others have on you, too.

Go above and beyond.

If you finish the task you came to do, ask the agency for another project that could use your help. You'll get to see a different aspect of the organization and gain another experience.

Reflect: Evaluate experiences with reflection activities

About reflection

Reflection helps increase sensitivity to community issues, expanding our capacity to serve more effectively. Reflection also lets you monitor service experiences through discussion and interaction, helping you feel both challenged and supported as you:
  • Think critically about your volunteer or service experience
  • Understand the complexity of the experience and put it in a larger context
  • Challenge, but not necessarily change, attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, privileges, prejudices, and stereotypes
  • Transform a single project into further involvement or broader issue awareness
  • Ask "Why?"
The Social Change Model of Leadership can be useful in reflection activities. The model sees all students as potential leaders and views service as an effective way to develop leadership skills. It focuses on 3 main areas affected by the service experience:
  • The individual
  • The group
  • Community/ society
Reflective questions and activities center around 7 critical values:
  • Consciousness of self is awareness of values, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs that motivate one to take action and better understand others.
  • Congruency means thinking, feeling, and behaving with consistency, genuineness, authenticity, and honesty toward others.
  • Commitment implies intensity and duration. It requires significant involvement and investment of one's self in the activity and its intended outcomes. It is the energy that drives the collective effort.
  • Collaboration is the primary means of empowering others and self through trust. Collaboration can occur when one has trust in the diversity of multiple talents and perspectives of the group.
  • Common purpose lets you work with shared aims and values. It implies the ability to engage in collective analysis of the issues at hand and the tasks to be undertaken.
  • Controversy with civility recognizes two realities of any group effort:
    • Differences in viewpoint are inevitable and valuable.
    • Such differences must be aired openly but with civility.
  • Citizenship describes the process that connects you responsibly to the environment and the community. It acknowledges the interdependence of all involved in the leadership or service effort.
Evaluation of each community service experience helps you determine if the project's goals and learning objectives were met and strengthens your ability to design and implement service projects. Evaluate projects from several perspectives:
  • How successful was the project for the agency?
  • How successful was the project for the people who use the agency's services?
  • How successful was the project for each participant?
  • How successful was the project for your group as a whole?
  • What changes could be made to improve the project's overall success?
  • Develop a brief set of questions and ask participants to respond in writing and then in small groups (time permitting). Sample questions:
    • To what extent did the experience meet your expectations?
    • What might have helped make your experience better?
    • What community needs did your service fulfill?
    • What community needs were not addressed?
    • What would you do differently next time?
    • How could you be prepared better for future involvement in the community?

Adapted from PARE, University of Maryland, Office of Community Service Learning.

Reflection activities

These questions and activities incorporate the 7 critical values of social change model of leadership.

Discussion

After students complete their volunteer service, ask open-ended questions to stimulate discussion:
  • What does the agency do well? What would you like to see done differently?
  • What did you learn about the issue the agency addresses or the population it serves?
  • Have you learned a skill or clarified an interest? How can you apply it?
  • What have you learned about yourself?
  • In what ways were your stereotypes or assumptions challenged?
  • How has this service experience supported your values?
  • Would you want to serve with this organization again?
  • How responsive is this organization to community needs?
  • What about your experience can you share with your peers or fellow volunteers/ activists?

What, So what, Now what?

Have everyone answer three questions in writing, in writing then sharing, and in open discussion.

  • What did we do, see, hear, smell, touch, taste?
  • So what does it all mean?
  • Now what? Where do I/ we go from here?

Free-write

Give volunteers a few minutes to write their feelings about the project. Ask for volunteers to share in small groups what they have written.

Artistic expression

  • Pass out crayons and paper. Have participants draw their feelings about the project or what they experienced.
  • Emphasize that artistic skill is irrelevant.
  • Invite participants to share their drawings.

Graffiti boards

Use newsprint around the room as graffiti boards and ask participants to respond to thoughtful questions, quotes, or statistics.

Sentence stems

Read some sentence stems aloud and have participants write and/ or share their thoughts. Examples:

  • Today I learned ...
  • What surprised me about today was ...
  • The most challenging thing about today was ...
  • The best thing about today was ...

Travel time

Make use of travel time by implementing reflective activities on the bus or in a car.

Notecards

Ask students to write questions that arose from their service experience on notecards.

  • Place the notecards in the center of the circle in a pile.
  • Ask each student to draw a card and respond to the question.

String game

Have participants stand in a circle. Give one person a ball of string.

  • Ask the person with the string to talk about his or her experience, then throw the ball of string to another group member while holding onto the end of the string.
  • Leaders and participants ask the person now holding the ball of string a question about his or her experience.
  • Have participants continue to toss the ball and share their responses.
  • When everyone has had a turn, process the exercise by pointing out the pattern that has emerged in the string.
  • Emphasize the connections that were made and the role each person had in the finished design.
  • You can use this as a metaphor for community and to illustrate the importance each person's actions has on others.

Record your experiences

  • Update your resume with your new skills.
  • Career PortfolioTool to be disabled June 30, 2015. Users should save or migrate data to another source (such as UCSD's Portfolium) before that date.

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