Each year, a significant number of St. Olaf graduates choose to embark upon a full-time volunteer/service opportunity. The CEL is eager to assist you in the process of considering, selecting, and applying to volunteer programs. A wide variety of service options exists, so it is important to consider your motivations and "fit" when selecting among the wealth of alternatives. Opportunities can range from secular to faith-based, and from domestic to international. Each organization will have a different mission, focus, and affiliation. Service work can be found in a variety of areas, such as human service, environment, education, health, and development. For information about the non-profit and service job search process, check out these resources from idealist.org.
Taking A Gap Year
Some liberal arts students choose to take a transitional year or two to gain additional experience, identify and prepare application materials to graduate schools, volunteer, travel, or solidify career goals. Here is a worksheet with helpful resources.
General Considerations Regarding Volunteering/Full-time Service Work
(adapted from the CSB/SJU Career Services website)
Below are some questions to consider when you evaluate a volunteer opportunity:
Why do I want to volunteer?
Determine if volunteering is what you want to do. What is your motivation for seeking a volunteer opportunity (professional, idealistic, and/or spiritual)? List and explain the reasons you feel that volunteering is the right option for you.
How will a volunteer experience impact my relationships?
Like any experience, volunteering will have an impact on your current relationships. Community life, a small stipend, and other aspects of volunteering distinguish it from other post-graduate experiences. Will my family accept my choice or understand my reasons for volunteering? Will it be difficult to possibly be far from home? What about relationships with friends or significant others?
How will volunteering affect my career plans and goals?
Taking time to commit to a volunteer program can affect your career/education path. It's likely that volunteering will enhance your future career options, but it does postpone those options as well. What gains or losses might you experience with regard to entering graduate school or starting a career in the future? How can you personally benefit by volunteering?
What impact will volunteering have on my finances?
Check with your loan agency to see if they defer loans for full-time volunteers. Also, volunteer organizations usually pay only enough for a volunteer to get by for their term. Can you financially afford to volunteer? If going abroad, what are the costs of the needed shots and other preparations?
What type of volunteer program meets my needs and gifts/abilities?
Do I want a Faith-based or Secular based program?
Should the program focus more on community or the individual?
What type of work/experience do I want (medical, youth, elderly, home repair,..)? What benefits are provided (stipend, insurance, travel reimbursement,..)?
Do I want to be in an urban or rural setting?
Do I want an international or domestic experience?
How far from home do I want to volunteer?
What length of commitment am I willing to make (6 months, 1 year, 2 years, or longer)?
What are my probable start and end dates?
Do I prefer structured or self-directed work/life?
Is vacation time offered?
Will I be able to travel around the area during my term?
Are there health issues I need to consider in my discernment about volunteering?
Other factors unique to my needs or myself?
What preparations are needed before I go abroad (vaccinations, a visa, a passport,..)?
What Options Are Available To Me Besides Volunteering?
Internships, Religious Life, Seasonal Jobs, Social Service work, and work with Non-Profit Organizations are several other options available.
Considerations Regarding Specific Volunteer Programs
In your search for a volunteer program, you will encounter hundreds of options. To evaluate if a program is right for you, you should know as much about it as possible. Many times it's hard to know which questions to ask, so we have compiled a list of questions for you to investigate in your search. Many of the answers will be found in literature about the organization. Other questions you will need to ask of the volunteer coordinator or former volunteers if you decide to contact the organization. It may help to answer some of the questions from the perspective of what you are looking for before you contact an organization.
Goals and Philosophy
What are the goals or components of the program? Do they coincide with your ideas and your lifestyle? Is the volunteer organization spiritually based? Is it affiliated with a specific denomination? Is there programming in place to process your experience as a volunteer? Will you feel sufficiently challenged?
Are there age requirements or gender requirements? Do you need to be able to speak another language? What other skills will be required of you as a volunteer?
Are there choices concerning work opportunities and if so, who will be making the final decisions? Is the work described clearly by the volunteer organization, thereby eliminating conflict between the organization and the work site? How much direct service (working with clients, building, teaching, etc.) versus indirect service (clerical work) will you be doing?
Will you be living alone, with a family or with other volunteers in community? If you live alone, will there be other volunteers in the area? If there is a volunteer community, what is the living situation (house, other building type, roommates, etc.)? Is the neighborhood safe? Is there a community car for traveling in the area? If not, what form of travel is available?
Is there a personal stipend? If so, how much? Will the stipend cover your expenses such as housing, food and transportation? Is there community money for food and other bills? If there is not a stipend, how will the costs be covered?
Will you be required to raise funds? Who will help you in this process? Are donations tax deductible? Is an Americorps Education Grant available for you? Often domestic or international service opportunities & non-profit organizations aren’t able to provide funding for interns and volunteers. This guide may provide some assistance.
Can student loans be deferred (check with your lending agency about this as well)? Will the volunteer organization help with that paper work? Is the organization part of the Americorps Education Grant program?
What type of health insurance does the organization provide, if any? Before volunteering, what immunizations are required? Will your organization have medical facilities nearby?
Is there a training and orientation program at the beginning of the year? What does it consist of? Will job training be available? Will there be language training involved? Is there also an end of the year closure program?
Does the program have a volunteer director on hand or easily accessible to you? Will the organization provide support at the work site or in the form of site visits? Who can the volunteer contact if emergencies arise or just to discuss the volunteer experience?
How long is the full volunteer term? When does the orientation begin and how long does it last? When does the service work start and end? What happens if you decide to end your volunteer service early? Can the volunteer term be extended?
What are the safety concerns regarding the area in which you will be working, traveling through, and living?
Can the organization provide you with names of former volunteers for you to contact and talk about their experiences? This is a great resource for learning more about the program and about the different work options you may have. Discuss with them any questions you may have about the program as well as their highlights/challenges.
What is involved in applying? What are the deadlines? How long will the process take?
Who pays for travel to and from the volunteer site? If there is an emergency at home, can you take leave and travel back home? Do you get vacation time (how much)? Can you still volunteer if you are married? Have dependents?
Other Questions for International Experiences
What health issues should you be aware of in your placement country? Are there other volunteers in the area for support and friendship? Is the political situation stable? Is there a network of people to contact if there is a problem or emergency? What is the length work commitment?
Discernment is a thoughtful and intentional way of making decisions. To discern while participating in a full-time service program, we invite you to pay close attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise as you consider life as a volunteer. To learn more, click here.