Gain experience. Build your resume. It’s the right thing to do.
There are innumerable reasons why we choose to volunteer. For me, volunteering was something I was encouraged to do for as long as I can remember. It was simply another part of life’s routine along with breathing, laughing, or learning. Food banks, seniors’ homes, park clean-ups, and fundraisers have consistently been a staple of my reality. It was those opportunities as a child that motivated me to get involved in social justice work in university. Pairing International Development Studies (IDS) with Sociology offered me the chance to study material that I was already passionate about and eager to study.
I love university and am an enthusiastic learner, but every so often I wonder how my class work and theoretical knowledge base will translate into my future professional goals. There are times when I wish I had more of a chance to put my academic know-how into practice. My mom always says that experience can be the greatest education, and I see now how accurate that sentiment is.
Upon entering my third year of university, I adopted the role of chair of World University Service of Canada (WUSC) at Dalhousie. A vibrant national organization with more than thirty years of history at Dalhousie, WUSC is an organization that works to promote education, employment, and empowerment for young people around the world. The Dalhousie chapter focuses primarily on an initiative called the Student Refugee Program, which affords intelligent young women and men living as refugees the opportunity to study at a Canadian post-secondary institution. I was excited to take on this new challenge as chair but also apprehensive about over-committing myself with school, work, and other human rights work locally.
As I registered for courses, I stumbled upon the Experiential Learning class offered by the IDS department. Since I have often been envious of friends in other disciplines who were engaged in co-op or internship placements, I realized that this course was my chance to do something similar. Little did I know that this course would extend far beyond a simple placement to include critical analysis, personal reflection, and a theoretical foundation.
I signed up for the course immediately and made arrangements to include my volunteer work with WUSC as my placement for the course. My work with WUSC was life-changing. I met amazing people, learned about the private refugee sponsorship process, and worked harder than I ever had before. However, it was the engagement with the course that allowed my experience with WUSC to have a deeper educational significance. I wrote reflection papers about my struggles and successes as the Chair, I read articles about the political ramifications of volunteerism, I critiqued my own choices and behaviours, and my passion for my work drove my interest in the course.
This class was the missing piece in my academic career. It was a safe space to explore my academic field in a real life setting, to make mistakes, to reflect, to share, and to grow. Dr. Huish encouraged me to elaborate upon my research on private versus public refugee sponsorship and I can wholeheartedly say that the chance to engage more deeply theoretically allowed me to perform better in reality. Learning is a multi-dimensional experience and stepping outside of the classroom can be an integral opportunity for growth.
My time in the Experiential Learning course did not provide me with all of the answers to the morality of volunteerism or the political implications of the term “community,” but it fostered in me much more valuable lessons. It taught me to question conceptions of society, political power, and the origins of altruism. It taught me to reflect upon my own actions, to think about how I influence others, and to recognize how my community influences me.
University is one of the greatest opportunities we have to explore our passions, our limitations, our expectations, and our contributions. Academia allows us to engage with the world from the safety of labs and lecture halls, but why not let our academic exploration extend beyond the classroom walls?