Over the long months of the pandemic, we’ve seen more than ever the power of ordinary citizens engaging in a meaningful service – everything from disaster relief to vaccination clinics. But feeling good about helping meet the vastly changing needs of our communities isn’t the only thing people gain from volunteering. Although we often do not focus on developing our professional skills through volunteering, the service offers one of the most personal 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 form the basis of a solid career. I outline five of them below.
#1: The self-aware mindset. Through the pandemic, we have become truly neighbors, revealing a mindset that is fundamental to our ability to engage, a mindset that is buried under the shiny veneer of easy volunteering. We had to focus on focusing on our self-awareness, who we are and what skills we have to offer in this rapidly changing environment. When self-awareness is professionally practiced, it creates the stage for strengthening other necessary skills in our personal and professional fields.
Stories of frontline workers, retired veterans, and neighbors coming to help with relief efforts have shattered the idea that all we need to do is show up once, and we can fix important problems affecting our community and our campuses. The pandemic has opened our personal awareness, revealing that our actions must be consistent, coordinated, and sustainable. By donating blood, one becomes aware of their health. By organizing for affordable housing, one can begin to understand the larger systemic economic perks in a new way. Our skill in understanding ourselves in contexts helps us build empathy, and the ability to hold true space for our most vulnerable moments is essential to creating collaborative working environments on our campus.
Number 2: Flexibility in problem-solving. No skill is more required by employers than problem-solving, especially as our fragile economic and local infrastructures have been strained by rapidly changing societal and business needs. From disaster relief in the middle of a pandemic to the complete restructuring of education and healthcare, volunteers have taken on new roles in new environments, while organizational bureaucracies grapple with the uneasy foundations of rapid change for which they were not built.
We’ve seen a stressful vaccine launch across the United States due in part to unfair access to information. But the faculty, staff, and students who managed the programming practiced agile problem-solving and quickly reused the software in order to democratize access to relevant information specifically about vaccine distribution centers. Moments like these have inadvertently prepared many volunteers to become agents of change and develop what many colleges, universities and other organizations seek in their employees as the ability to “work in a fast-paced environment”.
No. 3: Comfort with Mystery. In addition to solving problems, working in a fast-paced environment also means moving forward and testing ideas, sometimes with great ambiguity and without a clear path forward. Design Thinking practices encourage us to iterate as we make discoveries through ambiguous issues.
Campus with EMT training or volunteers with local fire departments shares 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 institutions of higher education to reimagine campus communities, awakening faculty, staff, and students to engage their skills in an unknown academic environment.
Comfort with mystery and curiosity for work builds the foundation of this skill. Whether volunteering for a service or working for an organization, the ability to transcend ambiguity and benefit from rapid problem resolution becomes invaluable to a successful work environment. These are the qualities that employers are looking for.
No. 4: Collaborative Approach. As we’ve seen on our campuses, among the most employable and most powerful are teamwork skills. In our service practice, teamwork embodies two essential components that are transferable skills. The team’s ability to understand its strengths and challenges is vital to its success. With a strong sense of self-awareness and the ability to adapt quickly, the team can move in to fill in the gaps in business and work. This was particularly important during the pandemic, as recruitment capabilities were disrupted and new networks of volunteers emerged.
Second, the ability to apply multidimensional systems thinking throughout the collaboration is essential. We cannot simply focus on the layers of work and project management; We must also consider how the project will affect other elements of this work outside its scope. Thinking about multidimensional systems goes beyond the simple task at hand and includes impacting the personal and professional areas of your team, bringing us back to being able to identify and work on the team’s changing strengths and challenges.
Mutual aid networks have become one of the most visible collaborative methods of teamwork, focusing particularly on the precise ability of individuals to respond as an organized group to complex needs. On campus, we often see mutual aid through informal, non-hierarchical practices, such as free accessible menus 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 exact leadership experience needed to move a team, classroom, or organization forward through extraordinary change.
No. 5: Active Preparedness. When working in any situation, at some point we will encounter unexpected problems that we hope to solve. How can you prepare for something you don’t know? You can not. But you can bring all the tools needed to chart the best path forward.
Active preparation means using one’s critical thinking skills to observe, analyze, reveal assumptions, and identify a range of possible solutions to the issues facing us today. Active preparedness also means being proactive, using the information we have today to explore possibilities and how they might appear. We don’t only think about the direct result – although that is important in meeting current needs. We also evaluate the long-term effects of our decisions and the outcome of future possibilities.
In most communities there are local emergency response management organizations that critically assess and prepare for future disaster possibilities. Disaster response teams such as the Community Emergency Response Team help train volunteers to meet a range of immediate needs and support long-term recovery efforts. When graduate students, faculty, and administrators volunteer and are equipped with hands-on aptitude training, we become less concerned about the unknown and better able to tackle projects in a proactive manner.
Think about the volunteer you participated in this year. You may notice that through your service, you have honed skills such as agile problem-solving, the comfort of navigating ambiguity and the ability to collaborate, among others. Together, they contribute to the power of readiness and enhance your expertise toolkit. You can apply the skills and attributes you have enhanced through service not only as you pursue your first job but throughout your career. They are the foundation for building supportive, well-functioning workplaces on our campus.