5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Volunteer Experience
There are a number of benefits to volunteering, whether abroad or at home, that one can expect. From gaining valuable real-world volunteer experience and developing new skills to expanding your professional network and exploring new occupations; the list is a long one.
One study found that students who take a gap year are more likely to attend university later on, while other research shows that participating in community service can enhance students’ problem-solving skills and improve their team working abilities.
So given the potential benefits of volunteering, how can you make sure you get the most out of what could very well be a once in a lifetime experience? Here are a few tips to help you do just that.
1. Be flexible and open to new ideas
The best way to get the most out of your volunteer experience is to be open to what others have to teach you, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar country or environment.
Plans may change unexpectedly, an organization’s staff or volunteers may change on a regular basis and there’s a good chance things will be done differently to the way you’re used to, so you’ll need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances without losing your cool and also be willing to step outside of your comfort zone if need be.
2. Identify your goals
It’s a good idea to identify what your reasons for volunteering are and then choose a volunteer program that’s in line with your interests and will also allow you to pursue the long-term goals you’ve set for yourself.
Is there any experience you need in order to pursue your intended career? Are there any specific skills you’d like to develop or strengthen? Would you like to make new industry contacts or expand your professional network?
Once you know exactly what you’re hoping to gain from your volunteer experience, it will be easier to choose a program that will meet your needs and help you further your career.
3. Be honest about your skills and experience
Although there may be specific skills you’d like to develop during your time as a volunteer, you shouldn’t overstate or exaggerate your abilities just to get into the program you want or be given more responsibility early on.
A developing country or high-stakes environment is no place to start experimenting with things you aren’t qualified to do, and you could actually end up doing more harm than good.
With this in mind, there should be a clear distinction between the activities you’re simply interested in trying and the jobs you’re actually qualified to do. It’s also a good idea to be open about how much time you’ll be able to commit early on so that everyone is on the same page.
4. Keep track of everything you learn
Keeping track of your volunteer activities and everything you’ve learned along the way isn’t just a nice way to remember your experiences later on. Not only will it help you add your newly acquired skills and experience to your resume or cover letter, but also will describe it more eloquently during job or college interviews.
Write down all the tasks you’ve completed at the end of each day, as well as any training you may have received, what you feel you’ve learned from it and any other out of the ordinary experiences you may have had. You may also want to ask for references from your supervisors, as these could come in handy once you start applying for jobs.
5. Make sure your expectations are realistic
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to solve deep-seated problems or make much of an impact during a two-week or even two-month volunteer program, so it’s far better to look at your volunteer experience as an opportunity to learn new things and strengthen your current skill set than as a chance to change the world.
With that said, research shows that when it comes to volunteer abroad programs, the longer you stay, the more lasting your impact will be, and the more realistic your expectations, the more beneficial the program will be for everyone involved.
So it’s important to have a clear understanding of what the organization expects of before you arrive. Also, try to be open to tackling jobs that are less demanding or seemingly below your skill level rather than clinging to a preconceived idea of what you’ll be able to do and the impact you’ll have.
About the author: Marianne Stenger is a writer with Open Colleges one of Australia’s leading online education providers. She covers everything from life hacks and career development to learning tips and the latest research in education. You can connect with her on Google+ and Twitter .