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Over the long months of the pandemic, we have seen more than ever the power of everyday citizens engaging in meaningful service—everything from disaster relief to vaccination clinics. But feeling good about helping to address our communities’ vastly shifting needs is not the only thing people gain from volunteerism. Although we often do not focus our professional skill development through volunteering, service offers one of the most personally purposeful and dynamic platforms for professional growth. By engaging in different types of service work outside of traditional roles, faculty, staff and students can gain unexpected skills that are the foundation of a solid career. I outline five of them below.
No. 1: A mind-set of self-awareness. Through the pandemic, we have truly become neighbors, uncovering an essential mind-set in our ability to engage, one that has been buried below the glossy veneer of easy volunteerism. We’ve had to focus on centering our self-awareness, who we are and what skills we have to offer in this rapidly changing environment. When self-awareness is practiced professionally, it creates the stage to strengthen other necessary skills in our personal and professional spheres.
Stories of front-line workers, retired veterans and neighbors coming to aid relief efforts broke the idea that all we need to do is show up, just once, and we can fix significant issues affecting our community and campus. The pandemic cracked open our personal awareness, revealing that our actions must be consistent, coordinated and sustainable. By donating blood, one becomes aware of their own health. By organizing for affordable housing, one may begin to understand larger systemic economic privileges in a new way. Our skill in understanding ourselves in contexts helps us build empathy, and the ability to truly hold space for our most vulnerable moments is essential for establishing collaborative work environments on our campuses.
No. 2: Agility in solving problems. No skill is more sought after by employers than problem solving, especially as our fragile economic and local infrastructures have strained under rapidly shifting community and commercial needs. From disaster relief mid-pandemic to totally restructuring education and health care, volunteers have taken on new roles in new environments, while the bureaucracy of organizations has grappled with the unsteady grounds of rapid change for which they were not built.
We saw cumbersome vaccine rollouts across the United States due in part to inequitable access to information. But faculty, staff and students who were able to code practiced agile problem solving and swiftly repurposed software in order to democratize access to especially relevant information about vaccine distribution centers. Moments like that have prepared many unwitting volunteers to become agents of change and develop what many colleges, universities and other organizations seek in their employees as the ability “to operate in a fast-paced environment.”
No. 3: Comfort with ambiguity. In addition to problem solving, working in a fast-paced environment also means moving forward and testing ideas, sometimes with great ambiguity and no clear path forward. The practices of design thinking encourage us to iterate as we make discoveries through ambiguous issues.
Campuses with EMT training or volunteers with local fire departments share the same comfort with ambiguity in emerging situations as engineering and design students do when developing new products. In the spring of 2020, the pandemic forced higher education institutions to re-imagine campus communities, awakening faculty, staff and students to engage their skill within an unknown academic environment.
Comfort with ambiguity and curiosity for the work builds the foundation of this skill. Whether volunteering to serve or working for an organization, the power to navigate ambiguity and to utilize agile problem solving becomes invaluable for a successful work environment. And these are qualities employers seek.
No. 4: A collaborative approach. As we have seen on our campuses, among the most employable and powerful skills is that of teamwork. In our service practice, teamwork embodies two core components that are important transferable skills. The team’s ability to understand the strengths and challenges faced is vital to its success. With a keen sense of self-awareness and the ability to adapt quickly, the team can move to fill gaps in work and action. This has been especially important during the pandemic, as staffing abilities have been disrupted and new networks of volunteers have emerged.
Second, the ability to apply multidimensional systems thinking throughout the collaboration is essential. We can’t focus simply on layers of work and project management; we also must consider how the project affects other elements of that work outside its scope. Multidimensional systems thinking goes well beyond the simple task at hand and includes the impact on your team’s personal and professional spheres, bringing us back to the ability to identify and act on the team’s changing strengths and challenges.
Mutual aid networks have become one of the most visible collaborative approaches for teamwork, focused specifically on the nuanced ability of individuals to respond as an organized group to complex needs. On a campus, we often see mutual aid through informal, nonhierarchical practices, such as accessible free food Listservs and class book exchanges, or groups working together to advocate for mental health or affordable housing. When we practice a collaborative approach, we gain the nuanced leadership experience necessary to carry a team, class or organization forward through extraordinary change.
No. 5: Active preparedness. Working in any position, at some point we’ll be presented with unexpected problems that we hope to solve. How can you prepare for something you do not know? You cannot. But you can bring all the tools necessary to chart the best path forward.
Actively preparing means using one’s critical thinking skills in observing, analyzing, uncovering assumptions and determining a set of possible solutions to the issues facing us today. Active preparedness also means being a proactive futurist, using the information we have today to explore possibilities and how they might emerge. We are not just thinking about the most direct outcome—though that is important in addressing current needs. We are also assessing the long-term impacts of our decisions and the outcome for future possibilities.
Active in most communities are local emergency response management organizations that critically assess and prepare for future disaster possibilities. Disaster response teams like the Community Emergency Response Team help train volunteers to address a range of immediate needs and support long-term recovery efforts. When grad students, faculty members and administrators volunteer and are equipped with hands-on preparedness training, we become less anxious about the unknown and are better able to tackle projects in a proactive manner.
Reflect on the volunteerism you have engaged in this year. You may notice that, through your service, you have honed skills like agile problem solving, the comfort to navigate ambiguity and the ability to collaborate, among others. Together, they have contributed to the power of being prepared and have enhanced your tool kit of experience. You can apply the skills and attributes you’ve strengthened through service not only as you seek your first job but throughout your career. And they are the foundation for building supportive and well-functioning workplaces on our campuses.