Why Every College Student Should Volunteer Off-Campus

Emily Bishop is currently a third year at the University of Chicago, majoring in Anthropology and concentrating in cultural & Middle Eastern studies. This year, she is delighted to be studying the social sciences abroad in France & Turkey! She has interned for a variety of campus programs & non-profit organizations and aspires to work in public policy or foreign affairs after graduation. In her free time, Emily is a member of UChicago’s hip hop dance crew and enjoys being involved with community, youth, and arts education projects. You can also find her hanging out with friends, exploring the city, and writing. Follow her adventures at embish.com!

To steal my opening line from 17th-century poet John Donne, “no man is an island.”

No college campus is, either. However, being a freshman college student can definitely feel like living on an island. Sometimes campus can be an oasis, but sometimes it feels as if you’re nothing more than a confused castaway. But through good times and bad, those few square miles often tend to encapsulate most — if not all — of many students’ early collegiate experiences.

During freshman fall, campus life became my world. I was eating at the dining hall, studying in a library cubicle, sleeping in a dorm, partying at frats, and attending on-campus events. I spent a whole bunch of time looking for student organizations to join, visiting club fairs, and sitting in on meetings. I wasn’t even sick of eating at the same, nearby restaurants and coffee shops yet. (A year later, and I promise you you’ll have all your local menus practically memorized.)

However, as weather got colder, my freshman year environment began to change as well. I had finally grasped the typically Chicagoan affinity for compass-style directions. I had learned some of the neighborhoods: the Loop, Millennium Park, Chinatown, Wicker Park, Pilsen… but I felt as if they were islands too, and we students were meant to be island hopping lest we drown in unfamiliar territory. I held no lasting connections to the community beyond the University affiliated, and it resulted in a strange combination of security in my new university dwelling and isolation from the larger Chicago community at large.

Like most people, I feel freest when I am well grounded in my surroundings. So my disorientation in Chicago was particularly uncomfortable. Having a “home” is much more than the building you live in – it’s your street, community, city.

So how did I turn things around? Thanks to one of UChicago’s community service programs, I had the opportunity to tutor students at local schools in Chicago… and the chance to connect to more of the neighborhood. Especially if you are like me and grew up in the same area for elementary, middle, and high school, meeting new people from diverse backgrounds is absolutely invaluable. Little did I know, I would come to not only know more about Chicago, but also to meet friends and expand my perspectives through my years of off-campus work.

Plus, being open to work or volunteer opportunities beyond those directly available at your school will allow you to develop your own individual skills and interests. College is likely your first encounter with a more independent lifestyle, and you want to establish your own character – personally and professionally. By taking some time away from group activities, I was able to volunteer in roles that suited my strengths, and I met mentors who have helped me to discover what I am most interested in.

There are plenty of service matching programs that can help you find opportunities that fit your interests. Lots of volunteer positions are substantial learning experiences – essentially, internships that also allow you to give back to your community. Some of my favorite websites to get started are VolunteerMatch.org, Idealist.org, and CreatetheGood.org.

College is a time to challenge yourself, but also a time to become more comfortable with your own identity. Taking your work away from campus for a while will help you to accomplish both goals!

If you just start to swim, the water may not be as deep as you think.

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