Friday, 21 February 2014

Tapping the wealth of volunteerism

This week’s post is from guest blogger Cristabel Sosa who graduated from the U of A in 2012 with an MSc in Public Health - Health Promotion Specialization.
Dwelling with books and highlighters, countless hours spent within a classroom unpacking theories, paradigms, and approaches; navigating an array of iterations of formal education has certainly taught me a whole lot. I do feel a humble pride when I look at my educational achievements, and I am certainly grateful for those opportunities. Yet, there is a cornerstone of my career that has given life and character to my identity as a professional and person. Those are the lessons learned on the field by volunteering and engaging at different levels within my community. This may not be foreign to you, as most of people have formally or informally volunteered and many find value in doing so. Regardless, I hope this personal reflection resonates with you, particularly on aligning your personal and career interests to be a rewarding experience that also benefits others in your community.

I really enjoy volunteering. I see it beyond a nice addition to my resume. I see it as investing my time and energy in rewarding ways. I see it as an opportunity to make a positive change (however cliché that sounds), even if the change is minimal. I see it as contributing to what matters to my community and a bridge to a greater sense of belonging. I heard once that by volunteering you gain more than what you give. This is one of those things that are not subjective, and there is always a depth of learning, which will sooner or later be of benefit.

Here is a little bit of my journey. My experiences have varied in nature: from doing the dishes for a floating library where I met people for over 100 countries to learning about trade fair agreements between developed and third world countries with Oxfam; from cooking Christmas rice while participating in a collective kitchen to supporting administrative tasks of an Edmonton NGO. I hold these experiences dear to my heart because they have shaped how I see and interact with the word. In addition to all the societal and mental health benefits of volunteering, for me it has been foundational to gaining transferable skills that are essential for navigating the workplace and building my career. These include a range of skills such as confidence, facilitation, respecting and celebrating diversity of opinions/backgrounds, and moreover, learning about interesting content areas. It is a way of exploring and contributing to your passions, which will not only be rewarding but will help you keep perspective on challenges in life.

Now, not all is flowers and whimsical experiences; there are challenges too, while and around volunteering. For starters, volunteering is a luxury that not everyone can afford. It often requires time, resources and most importantly passion. There can also be expectation conflicts between what you see as your contribution and what the organization expects you to do, and/or there may organizational issues that can be discouraging. But I think any challenge that may arise before, during or after any volunteer experience is an opportunity to strengthen your problem solving skills such as negotiation, assertiveness, diplomacy, and communication overall.

I would keep in mind a few things when narrowing your quest for voluntee opportunities. First, consider where you are in your life and career. The types of things I did ten years ago are quite different than the things I look for now. Of course, I want to have fun but I am much more intentional about where I volunteer. I try to find a balance between what I am passionate/interested about and opportunities that will contribute to skill development. Another aspect to consider is how align those opportunities to where you want to see yourself in the future. If you are deeply interested in an area (e.g. business development, homelessness, food security), look for opportunities that will provide exposure to that context. For instance, while I was doing my health promotion masters I volunteer with a local non-profit board in the area of healthcare, which provided me with a good understanding of the political and social context of healthcare in Alberta. Volunteering in your areas of interest will also provide you with opportunities to me key actors in that area of work, learn from their leadership skills and build connections that could go along away.

When you have found an opportunity, clarify the time commitment and logistics (how to apply, where, when, how many times, etc). Sometimes, it is hard to see past the excitement of an opportunity. We promptly commit and then realize that we are not able to respect the agreement. You don’t want to waste your time and excitement, nor the organization’s resources either.

Now, what has been your experience? Benefits? Drawbacks? Lessons Learned? I would love to hear them!

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