At a time when accessing the job market is especially difficult, one opportunity available to everyone contains a remarkable power to reveal passions, build confidence, introduce new people, and open doors to careers. That opportunity is volunteering, and what’s most extraordinary about volunteering is that it often leads in life-changing directions, because in addressing the needs of others we learn more about ourselves.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing the power of volunteering from my vantage point as President and CEO of the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a national nonprofit organization that engages young people in parks close to home and green space all across the country. SCA creates meaningful opportunities for volunteers to restore parks, build trails, help wildlife, and use technology to conduct research. In 2015 alone, we engaged more than 8,500 volunteers who provided nearly 1.5 million hours of service. But what the numbers don’t reveal is what the volunteers learned about themselves, the relationships they built, and where their service took them.
In one recent example, Jay Carter of Pittsburgh, who started by volunteering to clean a local park, says: “Picking up trash may not sound like an extraordinary career move, but the following summer SCA offered me a volunteer opportunity in Allegheny National Forest, and the year after that I was working on the Appalachian Trail. By the time I finished high school, I was building trails in Haleakala National Park on Maui.” Jay has since graduated from college and served in the U.S. Department of the Interior as an SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador for the National Park Service.
In that case, volunteering literally took Jay to places that he had not imagined, but in other cases the SCA experience figuratively takes volunteers to new places. Recent research conducted by the renowned Search Institute found that SCA participants develop a constellation of skills for success: “expressing ideas, engaging others to reach a goal, responsibility for the greater good, sense of purpose, openness to challenge, perseverance, awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and more.” These are all skills that enhance one’s ability to succeed in life and in careers.
The fact that these skills are increasingly valued is evident from a recent report issued by the admissions officers at many of America’s top colleges and universities. The landmark report – titled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions” – refocuses the qualities emphasized in the college admissions process and what we should value and measure in young leaders. It includes concrete recommendations in three core areas including promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service, and engagement with the public good.
The power of volunteering to reveal and strengthen passions is evident in the influence it has had on SCA participants. More than 80,000 people have served their communities and the planet with SCA, and a recent alumni survey shows that seven out of 10 of them are in careers or studies that relate to conservation of natural resources and sustainability.
As another example, C.J. Goulding of Teaneck, New Jersey, says: “SCA has changed my life by bringing me back to the central ideas of humanity, the core themes of community and connection. When I first became involved with SCA, I had lost sight of these important pillars, and because of that, life was crumbling around me. But the reminder of being connected to people, forming a community, and using that power to inﬂuence change on others, our environment, and the conservation world gave me a fresh start and a new beginning.” C.J. was recently named to Outdoor Industry’s “30 Under 30” Leadership List.
Volunteering has the enormous benefit of providing the tangible results laid out in advance, but its greatest impact may be on the volunteers themselves and the skills and commitments that it instills. That’s something worth considering as one thinks about career opportunities. Volunteering may just take you to places you hadn’t ever imagined.
The author is President and CEO of the Student Conservation Association, the national leader in youth service and stewardship.