Many colleges and universities out there offer course credits for volunteer hours. Many departments offer them for relevant on-campus or off-campus internships and volunteer experience, generally requiring a certain number of hours per week in order to receive the academic credit. This system encourages students to put their studies into practice in the “real world” to apply what they have learned, and also provides a structure within the university through which they can put together and undertake volunteer experience.
I see this as a mixed blessing.
I did get credit for volunteering during college, and recommend that some students take the option. For some, credited volunteer hours are even required, as it was during my master’s in Conflict Resolution when we had to sign up for supervised internships putting our studies into practice. But for students without this requirement, here are factors to consider—good and bad—before signing up for internship/volunteering credits through your university.
First, the benefits:
As I mentioned in my previous blog on “Inventing an Internship,” it is incredibly important to have “real world” experience on your resume during your college years. It helps with future job applications as well as in pursuing merit-based scholarships, graduate study, or publication. Whatever experience you have to draw on, it will serve you well.
The benefit of doing an internship for academic credit is that the experience will appear on your transcript. It will be part of your academic record and might carry and extra degree of authenticity or assumed quality because of that. Your transcript will probably have very little detail about these credit hours, but it will indicate that you got this non-academic experience through your university and within the context of your education.
Because you are signing up through the university system, you will probably have the benefit of university supervision. This means that there is a structure to receive support, advice, and help during your internship. The framework of hours per semester and expected outcomes will be (or at least should be) formalized through the University process. This means that there is a buffer built into the foundation of your internship—a structure for conflict resolution and higher authority for questions that’s right there in the academic plan.
This aspect of credited internships might also make it easier to find a position. The organization you are hoping to work for knows that there is a third party involved, and that you are therefore more likely to provide excellent work.
The previous point leads nicely into the question of accountability. You have to work a certain number of hours in order to receive the credits. The internship might not be paid, but there is a structure you are accountable to. This can be a real motivating force and can pressure you to show up on days when you might otherwise be tempted to not show up for volunteering (whatever your reason). This is good for you as a volunteer, and it is also good for the internship supervisor—they know you are required to show up.
If you are planning to volunteer anyway, and you need to fill credit hours, this structure can be hugely beneficial and can add flexibility to your schedule both academically and for your free time. There won’t be homework beyond the designated hours you’ve signed up for, and volunteering requires a different kind of energy and commitment than heavy academic study. By building in credited internships within your semester, you are guaranteeing experience and blocking out time for something different, of recognized value and building applicable skills.
To sum up, the benefits to academic credit for volunteering are:
- The experience is recorded on your transcript
- You receive university supervision and support
- You will be held accountable
- You have non-academic credit hours blocked off in your schedule
There is something inherently frustrating to me about paying a university for the privilege of working for free at a non-profit organization. What you are actually paying for is the credit hours, and since you receive all the above-mentioned benefits from the university, you have to pay the college or university for that privilege. Depending on how your graduation requirements work, internships may or may not count toward the completion of your degree. Be sure you know what you’re signing up for and how much it is really worth to you. If you are trying to save costs or to graduate early, you might be better off filling those credit hours with degree-satisfying credits.
This is listed previously as a positive, and generally that’s where it belongs. In a good internship or volunteer arrangement, everyone benefits from structure. However, if there is an unresolvable conflict in your internship, or if the organization undergoes some unforeseen change that makes your role less appealing or nonexistent, you are still accountable for those credit hours. Be sure you know what you’re getting into with the requirements for the project, and what situations could result in a “No Pass” or “Failed” credit.
Along with these structural concerns, it might be that the internship hours you have signed up for are a burden in some other way. I firmly support following through on all volunteer positions, and treating them like a job you are being paid for and have committed to seeing through to the end of the agreed-upon time. That being said, there are times when the flexibility to bow out is a benefit. This might be as simple as an unexpectedly heavy course load that makes the internship more of a time burden than you had anticipated. Or it might be that you find a better opportunity—paid or unpaid—that you would like to pursue, but you have made a credit-bearing commitment through your university that locks you in to one position for the semester.
The real trick to this issue is that the system holding you accountable is a third party. Decisions are one degree removed from you, and from your internship supervisor.
Adding credit to an internship inevitably adds a step to the process. It means additional paperwork and extra forms. If you are somewhat bureaucracy-averse (like me), then finding and establishing an internship is complicated enough without another system involved.
Again, this is both cost and benefit. But I (being the über nerd that I am) usually felt that my credit hours were precious, and that I wanted my class time to be committed to classes. I didn’t want to sacrifice the time with classmates and professors, and the time pursuing academic credentials and skills, to volunteering. “Real world” experience stayed in the real world, and academic credit was generally reserved for my coursework.
WHAT IS COLLEGE FOR?
Here’s my last item on the “negatives” list, but it’s more of a balanced question than an actual “con” item. To me, college was the structure of my life for four years. It was a central determining factor in who I knew, where I lived, and how I spent my time. I was involved with campus organizations, interdisciplinary academic pursuits, and a frequent attendee for various campus events. So I actually felt that it was important to get off campus occasionally, and to have parts of my life outside the umbrella of the academic structure. For me personally, volunteering and internships generally fell under this category. I felt that, in the end, I would benefit from having something outside the realm of “college” to add to my college years.
To sum up the negatives:
- Paying your university for your volunteer time
- Being accountable, and therefore (possibly) limited
- Additional "steps" in the internship process
- Sacrificing credit hours
- Possibly going off topic with the question "what is college for?"
Have you undertaken a for-credit internship or volunteer position? What would be the determining factor in a decision like this? More broadly, do you think universities should offer this as an option to their students? Leave a comment to let me know here!