When he wrote Democracy in America in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville said that “the health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” Although de Tocqueville penned his views concerning civic responsibility in the US, these principles remain relevant and applicable in today’s global society.
What Is Civic Engagement and Why Does It Matter?
Civic responsibility, by definition, is the “responsibility of a citizen” to adopt the attitudes and social participation of a responsible and caring member of society. Civic responsibility is a call to action for individuals to be social actors and not merely observers and critics of politics, platforms or policies.
As Mahatma Gandhi once aptly stated, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Civic engagement happens where people gather because people, by nature, are social beings. However, there are varying degrees of civic engagement. Some cities have more civic engagement than others, and this translates to a higher quality of life. Community well-being improves when every member of the community participates in public services, resulting in greater civic pride and responsibility.
The citizens of a society have the power to shape their world by the actions they take. Some of these actions take the form of volunteer work. A person can volunteer by supporting a favored cause or choose something entirely new, such as organizing a community garden, cleaning up a neighborhood park or even doing volunteer work overseas. Either way, they and their community will be better for their efforts, for even the most exceptional government in the world cannot address every nuanced issue or solve every problem a community encounters.
Benefits of Volunteer Work in College
Service work in college directly impacts your career. It not only helps you to evolve as a responsible citizen and reinforces civic engagement but also exposes you to work environments you might encounter later in your work life.
Drew Univeristy understands the value of civic engagement and how service work positively affects students’ future careers, which is why they offer the Civic Scholars Program. This program provides a financial scholarship incentive for aspired service-oriented students, and the benefits of volunteering in the program go beyond the walls of the university.
Service learning provides students with opportunities to develop civic engagement skills. By working with community members, students can enhance their group, organizational and interpersonal skills. They also can gain important experience working with diverse members of their communities.Civic engagement teaches students empathy and compassion and the importance of making a commitment to their communities.
In addition to personal growth and expanded consciousness, volunteer work in college offers some real tangible benefits to potential employers.
Leading a team of people toward a goal teaches students how to:
- communicate professionally
- manage time
- inspire team members
These leadership skills lay the groundwork for how to manage and stage team projects and how to be effective leaders.
During the job hunt process, employers like seeing volunteer hours because it implies proper time management and team-player attitude. Also, students who volunteer in their areas of study might already have a leg-up in their future employment.
Civic Scholar Program alumni were interviewed about how their civic engagement while enrolled at Drew University impacted their careers after college. Participation in the program required 100 volunteer hours in community service projects per academic year and a senior capstone project. All students who participated were eligible for the financial scholarship incentive. Interestingly, none of the interviewees mentioned the financial incentive as one of the top benefits.
Kristina Lee Farmer related that “intentionally stepping off my college campus for service [work] gave me a much-needed perspective of the world outside of myself” and through it “gained real-world, career experience.” As a student at Drew University, she taught ESL off campus and soon realized that injustices particularly affect those who aren’t citizens and don’t speak English. During her senior year when she worked on Uganda’s human trafficking issue, Kristina decided that her future career must allow her to serve others. Upon graduation, she went to teach for Teach for America in Arkansas, and it was there that she discovered that poverty has many faces, such as poverty of opportunity and poverty of experience and resources. Not one to shy away from challenges, Kristina has decided to take her pursuit for justice one step further. She is now enrolled as a law student in Arkansas and plans to fight the good fight for “transformational change in the South.”
Kristina offered the following advice to current students who are considering volunteer work: “My advice … is to do it! It may be hard at first to manage to volunteer with classes, work, or athletics, but in the end, gaining real-world experience with people who may be different from you will help you, in the long run, understand your personal core values that will then shape your career path.”
Participation in the Civic Scholar Program gave Nicole Kuruszko the opportunity to “step out of my shell” and to build her network. She had logged over 400 volunteer hours by the time she graduated with many of those hours devoted to Dress for Success, a program that helps low-income women dress for the workplace. Having been a Drew Civic Scholar has shown her how to be “both a leader and team player in my career.” Additionally, having done volunteer work in college has proved fruitful in her workplace. She’ll volunteer to help colleagues who in turn volunteer to help her. Giving of oneself at the workplace has fostered a “pay-it-forward philosophy” in her life. She understands that the time she invests in helping others is paid back to her. Nicole further credited volunteer work for honing her workplace interpersonal skills and being able to adapt to “new social environments.”
Nicole recommended that students do volunteer work for projects that don’t initially interest them because it might lead students to follow different paths and to meet different people they might not otherwise have met, or as she put it: “You never know… who you will meet.” She also stated, “Having a strong network of mentors is important to build while in college and nothing beats face-to-face interaction.”
Saif Yasin described his senior project planning a first-time middle school science fair for about 125 students in the New Jersey and New York area as one of his “proudest accomplishments during college.” Being a part of the close community of Civic Scholars at Drew University impressed upon him connections made with community partners. He also learned that he can significantly affect change and the kind of change he wants through volunteer work. Saif related that he plans to do volunteer work in STEM education and that ” … service has given me an understanding of people, and this became my motivation to pursue medicine as my hope is to form connections with science and with people through patient care.”
What advice does Saif, now, a MD/PhD student at the University of Maryland, have for students? He suggests students pursue work they’re interested in and to open themselves up to different situations. He also encouraged students to make connections with the people they serve. Students need to listen to other stories, and students need to tell their own stories to others. “Use service to help others and learn, and consistently strive to make an impact.”
Samantha Lacey described volunteer work with the Civic Scholars Program as “truly the foundation of my Drew U. experience.” She has made enduring connections with people and learned the significance of continuing to be an informed citizen. She also highlighted that her volunteer work influenced her career choice: “I learned that I had a passion for working with older adults … this passion led me to focus my studies on psychology and to conduct applied research that would benefit the aging population in Drew U.’s surrounding communities.”
Because of her work, she now studies in the University of Connecticut’s Industrial/Organizational Psychology Ph.D. program. She is also active in her department’s nonprofit research center, Industrial Psychology Applications Center (IPAC). Samantha said, “Service will definitely remain an important part of my work and life in general.”
Samantha advocates for students to be active in volunteer work where students can network and learn to take the lead on projects. They can use their passion for art to build and run a volunteer project like an art show or their passion for dogs to help at an animal shelter. She noted that students should “be creative” with their ideas for volunteer work and that they can make a difference in their communities.
Participating in civic engagement during college can have a transformative effect. It moves students to be empathetic and responsible, characteristics that translate well into future careers. Civic engagement can also lead students down different career paths, opening up possibilities where the values of volunteer work influence career goals and providing opportunities for building a strong network. And, just as importantly, students can make a change for the better.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”