I’ve always believed that at the core of a student affairs practitioner is the burning desire to leave whatever space we occupy better than we found it. Be it a campus, an office, or an organization, what makes most of us effective at the jobs we do is the little voice that tells us more can be done and reminds us that good enough is seldom good enough. When I was a grad student and had the path to career domination plotted out, a sense of volunteerism was at the forefront of my goals. Sure, I’d work in a student affairs office, but where I’d make my bones would be the special moments, the group advising, the community boards, the other duties as assigned. That’s where the names get made. Or so I thought.
Flash forward a few years and a growing career. Somewhere along the way, the desire to make a difference took a different shape. DirecTV and Verizon didn’t take altruism and self-sacrifice as legal tender for a data plan or HBO. So priorities shifted. They shifted to job functions. They shifted to making rent. They shifted to finding the unicorn of work-life balance. They shifted away from the sought after creation of a wet behind the ears grad student to a worldview that at best was realistic, but more likely outright cynical.
Maybe you have found yourself in that position. Maybe you find yourself in that position now. Have faith, ye of much higher education skill but little free time… it gets easier. It gets better. It gets… possible. For me, starting a non-profit world changing organization may be a few years down the road. Maybe it isn’t down the road I’m on at all. But that doesn’t stop me from doing all that I can whenever I can and not worrying about whether or not what I’m doing is too little. Much like the first workout after the New Year’s Day soiree, every little bit helps and every little bit is better than the nothing that I was doing before. Truth be told, it’s not really about me at all.
I made a cognitive decision that modeling a good commitment to the community around me was important. It was a bitter pill to swallow that most of the students I connect with through my position won’t ever have a need to creatively solve housing issues. Most may never need to be a crisis first responder. Most won’t need to handle an angry parent or an over occupancy assignment. But all will (hopefully) be productive members of a global society. Once that fact got digested, my mentorship changed.
I began to include students, colleagues, and fellow staff in volunteerism opportunities and that has made all the difference. Building components of service and volunteerism into training and staff development has made our staff closer and the community more appreciative of our office. As an office and as a unit we found ways to give of our time and talents on campus and beyond to better those around us. Once that paradigm shift occurred, volunteerism for me stopped being a competing demand and shifted to a complimentary demand. It is a built-in component to training for student and staff alike that volunteerism be an option. Our staff and students have viable options for whatever suits their passions and talents that range from manual labor type of activities (clean up projects, building things, organization at local food banks) to more passive volunteerism (speaking to youth about college, assisting with mock interviews at local high schools, holiday cards for deployed troops). What has made volunteerism for me more meaningful and authentic has been the non-mandatory nature of how we approach it. It isn’t forced and it isn’t required.
I also find ways to tailor volunteer opportunities to the unique needs of our service region. For our campus, serving Appalachia, programs that collect basic need items, build beds for families that are in dire need for them, or canned food drives are well supported, well attended, and connect the gap between town and gown.
The great thing about our chosen field is we came to make a difference. But without intentional opportunities to expand our circle, it is all too easy to drown in our day to day. For me, I love my career. I love my job, my institution, and my colleagues. But my position and my connections at the office don’t fill my soul. The connections I’ve made outside of it, especially with those who work within it, certainly do.
This post is part of our #SAvolunteers series, which will explore volunteering in all its forms, for all its reasons. For those student affairs pros who log in more hours once they leave the office, without the monetary reward, this one’s for you! For more information on this series, please see Jessi Robinson’s intro post. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series!