May 05, 2019

OPINION: Don’t forget to volunteer to get your career

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by Olivia Juarez

A huge smile had its way on my face after my first volunteer experience in Rose Park with an organization called Peaceful Uprising in 2012. My service experience was spent walking door-to-door, asking neighborhood residents about their thoughts on living next to oil refineries and the harmful impact of tar sands refinement on community health.

I encountered residents whose kind faces became sullen when saying that their kids have been hospitalized for asthma attacks. Others told me that they made their living at those plants, and that they wouldn’t change a thing. Regardless of people’s position on the matter, a golden sense of accomplishment emanated from my smile and my chest when I biked home. Years later, that volunteer experience and many others to follow actually paid off in the coming years. It helped me form a career out of environmental activism, helped me succeed in college, and qualified me for scholarships and internships. 

Volunteerism is a definite pathway to success. Offering your time in community service is an excellent way to be qualified for excellent jobs, get into the college of your dreams, and earn scholarships.

What does community service looks like in your imagination? If the image is of serving soup at a kitchen, or visiting with elderly, you’re not wrong. There’s more, though. It can look like being on the other side of an organization’s table at the 9th West Farmers Market, speaking to the public about a public issue. It can involve landscaping a community radio station. It can be giving, like running a drive for menstrual hygiene products. It can be administrative, like helping a local nonprofit with membership services.  Or it can be creative: from making sleeping pads, to writing an article for your local newspaper!

Each of these service opportunities gives you three important skills that employers and internships are looking for. First, they often require interacting with people you do not know, improving your public speaking skills and your ability to be a team player. Second, it shows you are self-motivated. Employers want to hire people who can be their own boss – the volunteer experience on your resume demonstrates that you can self-direct and contribute to your workplace. Finally, volunteering is the best way to get experience in a career field. If you’ve ever been stumped by the line “two years of experience” on a job posting that you don’t have, fear not! The time you spend volunteering at an organization or in a community service role that gives you that experience counts.

Colleges and scholarship funders also value volunteerism because they want to see students succeeding outside of the classroom. Getting into college with scholarships is about more than GPA; it’s also about willingness to bring what you learn into the community. When you can write about service experiences in admission or scholarship essays, the people reading your essay will see a community member they know is going to do good in the world. Having volunteer experience is an excellent way to stand out and get into your dream school.

These service experiences pay off in terms of job experience and feeling deeply satisfied. But what about paying off your bills? Keep an eye out for stipended volunteer opportunities that provide a small amount of money for your service. Organizations like Spyhop, YouthWorks and Uplift have these opportunities.  Also, be on the lookout for volunteer opportunities at work. You can volunteer to get recycling bins at your workplace, organize rideshares, or start a project to make your workplace better.

Today, when I ride my bike home from work, the same golden feeling I felt when volunteering seven years ago emanates from my chest. I live in the satisfaction that my work efforts are driven by what I’m passionate about; it’s not always easy, but it’s always meaningful and worthwhile.  My volunteer experiences set me up for success on my career path in environmental advocacy, and through college. It can do the same for you.

Olivia Juarez is Latinx Community Organizer at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. To volunteer in Salt Lake City and in the wild, email or visit SUWA.org.