Compared to other age groups, college-age Americans volunteer the least. In an effort to encourage participation, sociology professor Boazhen Luo’s students visit the Bellingham Senior Activity Center to connect their academic lives to interpersonal relationships.
Luo has been doing the volunteering exercise in her course Aging in Society for the past six years. Her requirement of the assignment gives students a way to build relationships with older generations. Students not only assist the elderly, but learn from them as well.
“It’s more service learning than volunteering,” Luo said. “I always say the students are not just giving, they receive so much.”
“It pushes us to grow as humans, as individuals, as community members, as neighbors. You realize the power we all have to contribute to our communities.”
College students engaging in these types of activities makes them a minority in their age group. Volunteer rates were lower from the age of 20 to 24 than any other age group, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In 2015, 18.4 percent of 20 to 24-year-olds volunteered in the U.S. This is lower than the national average of 24.9 percent.
Volunteering experience is highly regarded by many companies, especially nonprofit organizations such as Lydia Place.
Lydia Place serves Whatcom County, and its goal is to find and provide housing for homeless people. Executive Director Emily O’Connor realizes how important the need for volunteering is to their program, which receives over 10,000 volunteer hours every year.
“Volunteers are the key piece of what we are able to do,” O’Connor said. “We are an organization that couldn’t do nearly the scope of what we do without the support of volunteers in our community.”
With all the good volunteering does to those being helped, O’Connor also acknowledges it can benefit students’ own education.
“You get to break down some of the stereotypes and common misconceptions of [the] homeless and why they are homeless,” O’Connor said. “From the student perspective, it’s just [an] invaluable opportunity to have that exposure to the professional world.”
About 29 percent of 35 to 54-year-olds volunteer at least once a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is a 10.1 percent difference compared to the 20 to 24 age group.
Luo said the large percentage gap is worrisome for college students and can lead them to not being exposed to real world scenarios. College students may study and learn plenty of information, but do not learn how to apply their learning, she said.
“When they build that relationship, then they care,” Luo said. “It makes their critical thinking real, not just thinking about things off the book.”
Other than applying knowledge obtained in school to the real world, O’Connor said volunteering also shows the amount of power a person has in their community.
“It pushes us to grow as humans, as individuals, as community members, as neighbors,” O’Connor said. “You realize the power we all have to contribute to our communities.”