Monday, December 31, 2012

A Question about High School Volunteering

I don't want to tie this specifically, but I'm wondering why I hear that high school students should do volunteer work to prepare for their college applications.

I'm willing to believe that doing volunteer work can be valuable in all sorts of ways, and that its value might be recognized by admissions folks at colleges. 

What I'm wondering is: what do college admissions folks see as the value of volunteer work?

What other values does volunteering have?

My guess is that:

--College admissions folks see volunteering as demonstrating that the student has an interest outside him/herself, and thus would be an interesting member of the community, where interesting is about being involved and active in learning.

--College admissions folks may see volunteering as indicative of an attitude of "giving" which may translate into donations to the college.  (Cynical, but there it is.)

If my first guess is right, then it's not the volunteering per se that the college is looking for, but a sense of engagement outside oneself.  A student could demonstrate that in a lot of ways.

But I'm also wondering how many students gain nothing by volunteering (except a line on a resume) because they aren't really engaged by what they're doing, aren't really learning from it, or creating a meaningful experience.

Okay, genius of the interwebs, tell me if and why volunteering may be important to college admissions folks, please.


  1. Depending on what kind of volunteer work it is, it may demonstrate to colleges that a student can work with people of different ages/abilities/social strata than his/her own, which I would consider a good characteristic in someone going off to the (ostensible) melting pot of college.

    But I'm not an admissions person so that's just a guess.

  2. Anonymous12:17 PM

    We had a rep from Major Ivy come look at our school program last year and he said that, academically speaking, some of our kids could be Big Ivy material but they'd never be admitted because, while they had plenty of volunteer work under their belts--service projects are part of our curriculum, actually--they didn't have enough of the right sort of community engagements. They tend to invest in our immediate community and projects related to it and not enough of that thing where the rich white kids go swooping in to some poor neighborhood across the freeway and "help" because that's What You Should Do.

    I had a master's student last year who grew up in a migrant farm labor camp and talked about hating the volunteers from Nearby Ivy who showed up to get a line on their CV.

    But in any case, he made it clear that volunteering wasn't enough in itself for them. It had to be the right sort of thing--to make sure you're our sort of person.

    So I think there's an element of making sure you're the right sort, at least for some schools.

  3. Anstasia's comment confirms my suspicious that even if I'd been smart enough to get into an Ivy, I would not have fit in with "those" people. "Volunteering" and "Doing the Right Thing" are not things to be done just to get in to college. Ugh. People are so sickly self-interested.

  4. Suspicion. Forgive the typo. Anger makes me stupider.

  5. I'm not sure about high schools (public or independent), but in church circles there's beginning to be some -- much-needed, in my opinion -- self-examination about the relative merits of week-long overseas mission trips where ill-trained volunteers end up doing things like playing sports with local kids vs. just sending the money the whole thing would have cos, which will often go a long way in the hands of better-trained aid workers and/or well-organized locals who know what's most needed, and how to get it.

    I'm not sure volunteering is really volunteering anymore if it's a graduation requirement (as it is in our local schools). Mind you, I support focused, long-term volunteer efforts. My girl scout troop ran a recycling dropoff at the local trash transfer station for years before recycling was standard procedure, and both earned money and helped the environment in the process; my local stream trail has a series of bridges built by aspiring eagle scouts with the guidance of an experienced, knowledgeable leader; and my own church's youth group has, over years of domestic mission trips, developed construction skills to the point where local Habitat and similar organizations are very happy to see them coming, and know they'll end the week with tangible results. I also realize that shorter-term volunteering in established programs can be a good way for high-schoolers to explore possible career areas. But I suspect that the need for volunteer "opportunities" for privileged middle-to-upper-class kids is currently outstripping the ability of adult leaders -- paid or volunteer -- to provide the training and supervision necessary to make those activities genuinely useful to those who are supposedly being helped. And it may well be that your average middle-class kid really is better-equipped, in the absence of such intensive training and supervision, to, say, provide some companionship and entertainment for older folks in their own communities, than to work effectively with members of populations with which they have little in common, and about which they know very little. Obviously there's real value to such contact, but it can't be primarily for the benefit of the supposed helpers, nor is it fair (or helpful to anybody, including the young helpers) to put privileged young people in positions of power over much more experienced and savvy, but relatively underprivileged, adults.

    Or, to come at it from another angle: Newton, CT has recently had to issue pleas for people to stop sending stuff, because managing the shipments of teddy bears, etc. (to a town where poverty/lack of stuff does not seem to be a major problem anyway, in the wake of a disaster that had nothing to do with the destruction of material objects) has become a burden. Doubtless every donation was sent with all the good will in the world, but somewhere along the way we've lost track of the distinction between doing something that will genuinely help others (which requires research and planning and listening and, often, waiting until the shape of the situation becomes clearer), and doing something that will help *us* feel better/good about ourselves. In an ideal world, it's possible to do both (the police officers from surrounding towns who arranged for all the Newtown officers to have Christmas day off managed that, I think, because they genuinely understood the situation). But knee-jerk, generic "helping" for helping's sake isn't always good for anybody involved.

  6. Anonymous3:38 PM

    Huh. I taught math and did other teacher assisting (also fixed the xerox machine when it jammed) at one of those Migrant school things (two summers in a row, also a year one day a week doing TAing and pull out math in an inner city elementary school) and eventually ended up at an ivy. I guess I'm a horrible person.