By: Erika Jaramillo
While one may think that college students would be excited about earning their undergraduate degree, a good amount are actually apprehensive about graduation day — mostly because of the uncertainty of the job market and fear of what the future will hold. While those who manage to land a job before or immediately after graduation have very little to worry about, those who are unable to secure a job have many concerns, including paying back their loans. If you fall in the latter group, instead of twiddling your thumbs until you get a call back from an interested employer, a great way to keep busy, become the perfect candidate for graduate school, or resolve your debt problem is to give back to the community and volunteer.
First and foremost, volunteering beefs up your resume and helps ensure that your chances of hirability remain relatively high as the time between earning your degree and employment passes. While you may be unemployed, you never want to be "inactive." Know that there is a huge difference between the two terms. For example, your interviewer may ask you: "What have you been doing these past six months since you graduated?" You can't say, "I've been searching for a job." It isn't enough. Employers need to know that you've managed to stay active and productive. An excellent way to demonstrate that you value your time and utilize it appropriately, however, is to volunteer. It doesn't necessarily matter whether the volunteering agency has anything to do with your field of study or interest, but if it does, even better. During the interview, you can also explain how you earned a new set of skills just by volunteering — has your service taught you to work more effectively in a group? Do you now have strong leadership skills? Do you now have strong time management skills? And so forth. In addition, volunteering provides a variety of networking opportunities. You never know when someone you volunteer with might offer you a job or when a volunteer buddy may know of someone who is hiring. Your volunteer director may also be the perfect person to write a letter of recommendation for you.
If you decide that you would like to return to school and earn your graduate degree, volunteering can help you in that aspect as well and increase your chances of acceptance. Like employers, graduate school admission officers also favor those who remain active within the periods of earning their bachelor's degree and applying to graduate school. Some graduate programs even require it. For example, the University of Alabama requires that those applying to the school's physical therapy program complete 50 hours of "hands-on" experience either through work experience or "observation," which means volunteering at a hospital or medical facility and working under the supervision of a practicing physical therapist.
Lastly, volunteering can actually help you take care of your student loan debt. This is because under the 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act, those who volunteer for the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or any of its affiliated programs, such as the National Civilian Corps or the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), can earn educational credits or a stipend that can be applied to debt. Granted, certain terms and conditions must be met. For example, an AmeriCorps volunteer must provide services for an entire year before he or she can qualify to earn a $7,400 stipend and/or a $4,725 loan cancellation, but it is certainly worth it for those who find themselves in a financial bind. While these major organizations do in fact offer loan reimbursement programs, smaller organizations may do as well, but you need to do some further investigation to find out.