Student’s Guide to Volunteering in College

From campus fundraising to alternative spring break programs, learn the best ways to give back as a student and get tips for balancing volunteer work and college life.

Last Updated: 04/13/2020

College can be a great time to volunteer. You’re critically engaged, questioning the status quo, and eager to change the world for the better. That passion and optimism make college students some of the best volunteer candidates. Yet finding the time to give back is often challenging, if not impossible. Between class, work, and social obligations, many volunteering commitments just aren’t feasible. Making volunteer promises you can’t keep leaves everyone disappointed, and no one wants that.

Fortunately, there are many ways to fit volunteering around your already crazy schedule. Some opportunities are even designed with students in mind. In this guide, you’ll discover the best ways to volunteer during college (and which options to steer clear of), find real-world programs that match your interests, see how valuable student volunteering is, and learn how to balance volunteering with the rest of your busy life.

Why Volunteer? 10 Benefits for College Students 

1

Builds meaningful contacts.

Volunteering allows you to network with employees of the organization. Your volunteer supervisor could serve as a great contact for future jobs or as a professional reference.

2

Boosts your resume.

Recent college graduates’ resumes often demonstrate limited professional experience. Volunteering gives you something concrete you can add that shows hiring managers your dedication to skills-building.

3

Develops new skills.

Whether taking photos for your local humane society or breaking out the hammer at Habitat for Humanity, volunteer roles can help you gain new skills that enrich your personal and professional life.

4

Allows you to test the career waters.

Before beginning the job search and accepting an offer, try volunteering in areas that pique your interest. This will either confirm your interests or nudge you in a different direction.

5

Increased sense of fulfillment.

Giving back to your community can help build a sense of accomplishment and improve your self-confidence. It can also remind you how important it is to make time for others less fortunate.

6

Improves mental health.

Studies have shown that volunteering can help stave off mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and even high blood pressure. It can also help reduce overall stress levels.

7

Forges new friendships.

In addition to professional contacts, volunteering may lead to new friendships. You often meet like-minded individual in these settings who see the world in similar ways as you.

8

Develops awareness.

It’s easy to live in our own little bubbles and not fully understand the challenges facing others. Spending time volunteering exposes you to hardships and makes you more aware of the world around you.

9

Provides academic credit.

Some college classes may provide credit or participation incentives for volunteering. If unsure, ask your professor or academic advisor about opportunities.

10

Makes the world a better place.

At the end of the day, volunteering is necessary if we want to live in a kind and compassionate world. Spending just a few hours of your time helps ensure these qualities remain engrained.

Student Volunteering: What to Look for and What to Avoid 

Before adding your name to a volunteer sign-up form, it’s important to consider several important factors that affect what you get out of the experience and whether it works with this stage of life.

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  • Aligns with major. This ensures you gain marketable skills while serving others.
  • Presents learning opportunity. Try to find a position that allows challenges your way of thinking and learn something new.
  • Organized by your school. This ensures the program has been thoroughly vetted and may provide credits.
  • Provides job potential. Countless stories exist of star volunteers receiving job offers, and you could be one.
  • Combines your passions and talents. Try to find the intersection of your passions and skills, as this will ensure a good fit.
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  • Located far away from you. Driving an hour each way to volunteer for a couple hours likely won’t work with your schedule.
  • Requires long-term commitment. Some volunteer roles may require at least a year commitment, but it’s hard to plan beyond your current semester.
  • Not at a nonprofit. Be wary of volunteer opportunities from organizations that are not considered 501 (c) (3).
  • Already overly staffed with volunteers. If the group is already overflowing with volunteers, opportunities may be limited.
  • Inflexible hours. Some nonprofits only need help during very specific times. Find out as this could overlap with class time.

Top 5 Types of Volunteer Work for College Students

While college students are eligible for just about any volunteer opportunity, some naturally work better than others. Here’s a closer look at some of the top volunteer options that can fit into your already busy class, work, and social schedule.

Alternative Spring Break Trips

Rather than spending your week of freedom lounging on a beach or heading home to your family, consider using that time to help others. Plenty of domestic and international opportunities exist to meet students’ unique volunteer interests. Here are a few standouts.

  • Habitat for Humanity Spend a week helping build a house for an individual or family in need. These opportunities exist throughout the country, with more than 10,000 students participating each year.
  • United Way More than 5,000 learners have participated in United Way’s alternative spring break since its inception. Use the week to immerse yourself in a spectrum of volunteer opportunities.
  • Volunteer Abroad Plenty of international opportunities exist, ranging from sea turtle conservation and medical missions to animal care and sports development.

Remote Volunteering

Volunteering online can be a great option if you want to do something not offered in your area or your schedule is too tight to travel. It’s also provides a great option for students without access to a vehicle.  The following three organizations are all great choices for remote volunteering.

  • Translators Without Borders If you know a second language, consider offering your services to this nonprofit focused on translating important information and educational materials for those most in need.
  • Be My Eyes Designed to support blind individuals and those with low-vision, this opportunity allows you to act as a sighted volunteer and provide visual assistance for a variety of everyday tasks.
  • Ark of Hope for Children You can act as a virtual ambassador for this nonprofit focused on supporting children who experience abuse.

On-Campus Fundraising 

Holding fundraisers on your campus helps bring awareness to issues close to your heart while raising much-needed funds that help organizations continue doing meaningful work. Some organizations (like those listed below) provide dedicated campus fundraising resources, while others may not have the budget to assist with your initiative.

  • Wishmakers on Campus Make-A-Wish provides an on-campus fundraising packet and examples of initiatives on other campuses to help students make a real impact in their local community.
  • American Cancer Society If speeding up the eradication of cancer is something that matters greatly to you, consider holding a fundraising event to both bring awareness and collect donations.
  • UNICEF UNICEF compiled a comprehensive fundraising guide to help students and student organization leaders organize meaningful fundraising programs that make a difference in the lives of children across the world.

Political Organizing/Civil Service

There are many ways students can volunteer their voice to drive political change, whether it’s working for a particular candidate, an organization focused on a single issue, or your local election commission. Here are a few ideas:

  • U.S. Election Assistance Commission
    You can volunteer to be a poll worker through the EAC and receive training on how to ensure a free and fair election. Individuals must be selected for these roles; they also receive a small stipend.
  • Emily’s List 
    This organization focuses on getting more women into elected office. They champion female candidates at every level of the government and provide training to help prepare candidates for the election process.
  • Individual Candidates
    If you support the views and plans of a particular candidate, plenty of options exist to get involved. Visit the candidate’s website and you will find information on how you can help get them elected.

Summer Volunteer Abroad Programs

Volunteering over summer break in a different country both allows you to experience a new culture and give back to the broader world. Some of these programs also grant college credit. The following volunteer organizations offer volunteer programs all over the globe.

  • Go Overseas Students can find plenty of options via Go Overseas, which arranges new opportunities each year. These vary in terms of length, location, and cost.
  • United Planet This organization functions similarly to Go Overseas but provides a bevy of options where students can gain particular skills and customize their experience.
  • International Volunteer HQ Volunteer abroad programs include service trips, teaching opportunities, medical and healthcare missions, and volunteerism based on the environment and conservation initiatives.
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Is Volunteering Abroad Right for You?

International volunteer opportunities are popular among college students, and for good reason. Building new skills, learning about a different culture, and making a difference are all great for personal and professional growth. But before you take the leap, make sure this is the right option for you with this checklist.

  • No summer job commitments.
    If your summer is wide open, use that time to help others – and improve yourself in the process. Plenty of summer volunteer opportunities exist, as shown in the previous section.
  • Interest in an international career.
    If you see yourself working for a multinational company – or even abroad – in the future, gaining experience overseas can help you stand out from other job candidates.
  • Open-mindedness.
    Living abroad, even for a short time, means putting yourself in an entirely new culture and world that functions differently than your own. Keeping an open mind and being flexible are key to enjoying the experience.
  • Willingness to grow as a person.
    It’s hard to immerse yourself in a new culture and not grow as a person. Whether learning about customs or adjusting to a new way of life, you will feel different when you return home.
  • Desire to meet new people.
    If you’ve always wanted to have friends dotted across the globe, an international volunteer experience can help get you started.
  • Ability to pay for the experience.
    Even though you will be volunteering your time, many overseas programs cost money for flights, lodging, transportation, and everyday expenses.

Where to Find the Best Volunteer Opportunities for Students

With so many volunteer opportunities available, finding the right one can seem overwhelming. Plenty of resources exist to help you locate an organization that combines your skills and passions. We offer a few ideas for where to get started below.

VolunteerMatch

This nonprofit organization focuses on connecting people who want to volunteer with the organizations who need their help the most. Students can find opportunities scattered throughout the U.S.

Idealist

Idealist serves as a great option for finding both volunteer roles and jobs that give back. The group has listings from all over the world and users can search by volunteer area or sector.

All for Good

Another great organization that lets volunteers connect with organizations in need, All for Good allows users to search for opportunities based on location.

Points of Light

This nonprofit helps connect volunteers while also providing opportunities for service fellows and alternative forms of giving back. It also supplies valuable volunteer toolkits.

Corporation for National & Community Service

This governmental agency provides several volunteer opportunities for college students and beyond. Some, such as AmeriCorps, help with student loan repayment and/or grad school costs.

College volunteer offices

Many college campuses maintain offices of volunteerism where students can learn about opportunities on campus and beyond. Broward College provides an example of what to look for.

Local community centers

If you want to keep your volunteering local, check with your nearest community center. These locations typically keep a running list of volunteer opportunities.

Nonprofit management centers

Many cities have nonprofit management centers which function similarly to a chamber of commerce but for nonprofits. These often maintain a list of opportunities. The Center for Nonprofit Management in Nashville offers a great example.

Research major-specific opportunities

Groups such as MBA Corps, Legal Voice, Crime Victims, and the National Gallery of Art provide opportunities specific to your major or chosen career path. Find a nonprofit focused on your interests.

Animal shelters

Animal shelters are always in need of volunteers to help with myriad tasks. If you miss your furry friend from home, consider loving on some pets waiting on their forever homes at a shelter.

Tips for Balancing Volunteering, School, and Life Commitments

Despite altruistic instincts to give back to your community, finding balance between volunteering, school, work, and social responsibilities is incredibly important. Classes, work, group projects, and hanging out with friends and family can take up a lot of time, but students who plan ahead can fit everything into their busy days. Here are some tips for keeping it all together and staying sane.

Keep an updated calendar

Managing your time well starts with knowing where you are supposed to be and when. It can also help you schedule meetings in blocks rather than sporadically, thereby giving you more consolidated time for volunteering.

Prioritize schoolwork

Even though volunteering is unquestionably a worthwhile endeavor, you must make sure to prioritize your classes and assignments. Even if you make great networking contacts while volunteering, hiring managers won’t be impressed by subpar grades.

Avoid unnecessary commitments

If you decide that school and volunteering are your two top priorities, commit the remainder of your time accordingly. It may be necessary to turn down some offers if they do not fit within your goals.

Make time for self-care

Is the degree program offered in a format that fits your schedule?

Bring a study buddy

Does the program accept transfer credits from other schools?

Additional Resources for Student Volunteering