Service leads to opportunities

Wade Lee

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I was just at Toledo’s annual weekend-long Tent City event for services to those in poverty or homeless, and I saw a lot of students from the University of Toledo there, some volunteering individually and others with a fraternity, sorority or other student organization.

A few students I recognized from previous Tent Cities, as well as some from other volunteer events, and it started me thinking about motivations for volunteering and community service and what role it may play in a college student’s life.

For some, the motivation may be external factors – a requirement of service hours for a group they’re a member of, as part of a class assignment or even as part of a court-ordered community service. Believe me, I have seen this.

In the organizations I’m associated with, these sorts of volunteers usually start out reluctantly, but by the end of their mandatory hours, some are just happy to be done with the assignment and have checked off all of the right boxes while others have begun to love whatever they were volunteering to do and the community that they had grown into. Their motivations shifted from external obligation to internal rewards.

These intrinsically motivated people still have a variety of reasons for volunteering, but are driven by choice rather than duty. Some may feel strongly about a political cause or issue and volunteer to get the word out.

I volunteered with a phone bank for a local ballot measure that I strongly believed in, even though I hate talking on the phone, especially to strangers. It was my belief in the cause itself that overcame my reluctance. Similarly, a sense of justice or one’s spiritual or ethical beliefs may bring out the passion of a volunteer to build a house, feed the hungry and provide clothing or even just conversation to those that don’t have it.

Others may be motivated by the social aspects of volunteering and enjoy the community that forms around it, especially if you volunteer with a friend. Finally, I know that some volunteer with an eye for how it looks on a résumé or scholarship application, though this isn’t usually their primary motivation.

For myself, I’ve found volunteering to be something transformational, showing me new aspects of myself and of my world. A few years ago, a colleague in the library invited me to read to pre-school kids as part of a literacy project she was involved in through the West Toledo Kiwanis and the UT Circle K student organization, and now the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi.

Anyone who knows me knows that kids and I don’t mix – frankly, they scare me a bit. So, it was with mounting reluctance that I approached our first session, facing the eager faces of countless 3-and 4-year-olds. But I discovered that the kids just loved the attention of a “special guest” at school and receiving their very own copy of the book.

They weren’t expecting a stellar performance by me and were a true example of unconditional acceptance. Something I took for granted, the ability to read and a love of reading, was something they admired and I could plant the seeds of in them.

For many at college, the world can become sort of a comfortable bubble. Your friends are mostly the same age, have similar goals and background and are living within a few miles of each other, or even just down the hallway. Even on such a diverse campus, you can tend to self-segregate into “affinity groups” that draw like-minded people and further reinforce your own experience by forming relational communities of people like you.

Whether intentionally or not, student organizations tend to bring people together with similar religions, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations or politics and can make your college experience even more homogenous. However, finding volunteer opportunities, especially off-campus, can bring you into contact with a far more diverse group of people and experiences. While I was in college, I rarely got into downtown Toledo.

As my Tent City experience that started this musing indicates, I’m now a regular in downtown Toledo, because that’s where many of the organizations that address homelessness, poverty and hunger are based and do much of their work. I’ve meet people I now consider friends that, quite honestly, I would’ve never met had I remained on UT’s campus and not ventured out.

Many of you may be thinking you don’t have much to offer; when you’re in college time and money are in short supply. But most volunteer opportunities don’t cost any money, and even a little time can go a long way toward making a difference, especially a difference in you and your outlook.

There are some off-campus organizations who have an on-campus presence, such as the UT Bridge Club, which meets every other Friday afternoon at the Crossings to make lunches for Food for Thought to hand out downtown on Saturdays, to give just one example. UT has a Service Learning & Community Outreach Office, which lists community organizations that welcome student volunteers, or you can check with the student organizations that you’re already a part of to see where you can help.

All of us have a passion, skill, talent or ability that could be used in service to others or to a cause. Whether your motivation is social, political, ethical or you’re just looking for something to look good on a résumé or scholarship application, finding a way to share that can make your life richer, not only those whom you serve.


Wade Lee is an associate professor in the library.

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Service leads to opportunities