A Note from Katie: Korrin was a classmate at the UO and has previously shared a guest post "Making the Most of Your Undergraduate Thesis." She has leveraged both research opportunities and volunteer experience to gain incredible insights and opportunities in her chosen field. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did!
"How Volunteering Led Me to Meaningful Academic and Professional Opportunities" by Korrin Bishop
“So, how’d you get into homelessness?”
It’s a weird question. Yet, it’s one I’ve gotten often since moving to Washington, D.C. to work on federal programs to end homelessness. It is also a question that has forced me to actually think through the steps that placed me into a career path I’m passionate about, and how I can continue to grow that passion.
Both in my college and professional careers, volunteering has been the common denominator for what has driven my pursuits. It is something that has become so entwined with the academic and professional work I have done, that I’ve come to refer to it as my work outside of work. At the same time, it happens make work feel a lot less like work.
I found that while in school, volunteering can:
- Influence your chosen area of study;
- Show you potential career paths within an area of interest;
- Allow you to give back to your college’s community; and
- Learn about an issue from an array of perspectives beyond academia.
Here’s how this actually played out for me.
Volunteering While in School
In college, one of my major’s core classes was called, “Community Leadership and Change.” It was taught by an adjunct instructor whose fulltime job was with the City of Eugene working on policies and programs addressing homelessness in the community. As a result, many of his lectures drew upon his experience with this topic. I instantly recognized the interest I’d long held for this subject. However, my department didn’t teach “Ending Homelessness 101.” Instead, it taught courses like “Introduction to Public Policy and Planning.” To explore homelessness issues more deeply and see if this was truly the work I wanted to do, I needed to seek out additional opportunities.
With the help of my instructor, I was soon connected with Project Homeless Connect of Lane County, Oregon, a one-day event held at the local fairgrounds that brought needed services and resources to over 1,200 people experiencing homelessness in the community. The event covered everything from haircuts and dental work to applying for mainstream benefits and searching for housing opportunities. The first year I volunteered for Project Homeless Connect, I worked at a station giving out coats, tents, backpacks, socks, and other essential items to attendees. This gave me an opportunity to interface with people actually experiencing homelessness and break down some of the stigmas society teaches us about this population.
The following year, I not only worked the event, but also volunteered on the planning committee. This gave me an opportunity to network with different nonprofits and local partners in the effort to address this social wrong. I was able to see potential career paths within this field, understand local processes, and learn the benefits and complexities of collaboration. I also left with additional volunteer opportunities.
I noticed that when I now took classes like, “Public and Nonprofit Management,” I thought about the topics we learned through the lens of the homeless services system.
Most importantly, through my college volunteer experiences, I learned that ending homelessness was, in fact, my passion. I had an innate pull toward the topic, but it was volunteering that solidified it for me, adding an invaluable complement to my studies. With this passion, I was able to move across the country, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, to Washington, D.C. to get closer to the national dialogue occurring around the issue.
Volunteering While in the Workforce
There’s a definite honeymoon period when you first graduate from college and head off to work on social justice issues, particularly if you’re making your home in the nation’s capital. Every “Department of” you pass inspires you. Seeing the Capitol still gives you goosebumps. Each task you’re assigned at work looks like a chance to change the world for the better.
However, what every recent grad must eventually come to terms with is that, in addition to changing-the-world-esque tasks, everyone must also complete some fairly mundane administrative work. Oftentimes, we must also come to terms with the fact that systems-changing policies can be a slower process than one might wish.
When I first started working on federal homelessness programs in D.C., I was ecstatic. We were making a difference! The national conversations we were having on this topic were important. I was learning a lot.
However, I also learned that working on these issues from the bird’s-eye view began to feel more and more disconnected from the people we were actually trying to serve. I felt an absence of community, and the true mission of our work seemed harder for me to find in the complex language of government regulations. I found myself burning out on the policy work, and so I stopped to remember what had once brought my studies alive.
I started volunteering.
I began providing overnight supervision at a women’s shelter. This experience allowed me to reconnect with some of the people affected by the programs I created policy guidance for during the day. Spending time with them gave me new perspectives on shelter intake processes, housing as healthcare, and the true face of homelessness in America.
I also volunteered for an annual survey conducted in D.C. that involves speaking with people experiencing homelessness to gain information on their demographics, geography, and length of time spent unsheltered. This data is collected across the nation, and my company, Abt Associates, uses it to create reports for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on progress being made to end homelessness in the country.
In this volunteer role, I met local and national leaders in the effort to end homelessness, and was connected to additional ways to volunteer for the cause in my community. In addition, having on-the-ground volunteer experience conducting the survey allowed me to be able to provide feedback to my company on effective ways to collect the information, and reminded me what the numbers we work with really mean.
With this reconnection to the ground-level of my work’s subject area, I am able to hang onto the drive for social justice that landed me in D.C. to begin with. On days when I have to complete some of my job’s less exciting tasks, such as formatting PowerPoint slides or updating Excel tracking logs, I don’t just see these as mundane or meaningless to dos, but rather as pieces of the larger fabric that is collaborating to better the lives of some of our most vulnerable neighbors. I try to bring this mindset back to my team, so that we can continue to inspire each other in the work that we do.
In the workforce, volunteering can:
- Give renewed meaning to the work you’re doing (even the little things!);
- Connect you to the community in which you’re working;
- Inform your team on how to best prepare and implement projects for clients;
- Provide a new and valuable perspective to your field; and
- Create a collaborative and mission-driven work environment.
The Overall Value of Volunteerism
While in college, my volunteer experience drove what I focused my studies on in the classroom. It gave me an outlet to explore how to apply what I was learning in an academic setting to something meaningful in the community.
While in the workforce, volunteering has acted as a reminder for me on why I’m doing the work I’m doing. It has also provided me with invaluable information on how the policies and programs I’m working on in the office are actually being implemented in the field.
Volunteering while in school or the workforce is an excellent opportunity to:
- Hone in on what you’re passionate about;
- Learn about a subject from varied perspectives;
- Offer your skills and abilities toward the greater good; and
- Give deeper meaning to even the most mundane tasks you may find yourself doing.
No matter what your field of study or work is, I believe there is a meaningful way to connect it to a volunteer experience that both benefits your personal and professional growth, and also lets you help in making your community just a little better. If you’re looking for a way to focus your studies in school, or enhance your work in the office, I encourage you to seek out a volunteer experience. You may just find, as I did, that academia, volunteerism, and the workforce operate best as a collaborative continuum of learning and service.
Please leave comments, questions, and feedback for Korrin in the comments section below. If you liked this post, you might also enjoy "Saying 'Yes,'" "Why Alternative Spring Breaks are a Great Idea," "Credits for Volunteering," and "Inventing an Internship."