Volunteering for STEM Professionals, and Why You Should Give Back!

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Whenever I talk to colleagues about volunteerism, I always hear about that one mission trip their church went on after some natural disaster. Being from Louisiana, it’s normally “the one time I went to New Orleans was after Hurricane Katrina with my church group”. I don’t think you realize how often I’ve actually heard that. Being me, I usually continue the conversation on how awesome it is that they participated in mission trips in high school – as opposed to explaining that I don’t actually live in New Orleans and that Katrina didn’t destroy the entire state.

What’s interesting is that almost always, the colleague brushes off the idea of volunteering as some dorky thing when they were young. However, I see it as one of the most intriguing parts of one’s life. To me, education and academics shows the strength of your mind, but volunteering shows the strength of your heart.

“Education and academics shows the strength of your mind, but volunteering shows the strength of your heart.”

As the number of STEM jobs continue to grow, it is important to instill a sense of volunteerism in young STEM professionals, at the college level and early on in their careers. We need more role models for young children and more professionals taking the time out to provide support to local communities through their time and effort. However, volunteerism as a whole is diminishing in the United States.The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that under 25% of Americans volunteered in 2015, which is a 10-year low. You may not realize, but community service is a win-win situation where you can help those less fortunate while also taking advantage of the skills and opportunities that are so unique to the act of giving of yourself.
A survey on LinkedIn found that 41% of professionals considered volunteer work as important as paid work. I know what you’re thinking: you’re not some English major. As a STEM professional, there are entire interviews set aside to test your technical skills and any experience you have will set you apart from the next applicant. I agree! There are tons of ways to use your technical skills in community service that can build upon that great research project you worked on junior year. One study asked Deloitte hiring managers about their thoughts on volunteer experience.

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Eighty-two percent said they preferred applicants who volunteer. Interestingly enough, those same Deloitte managers believed that people who volunteer their professional skills have a slight edge over those who volunteer in roles unrelated to their jobs. With that being said, THINK CRITICALLY on how you can use your skills to volunteer in your community. For example, if you’re a computer programmer, you can create an mobile application for a non-profit organization or create a user-friendly database of current scholarships for a local high school. Volunteering can add to your experience while helping those who are not fortunate enough to have your education.

“Forty-one percent of professionals considered volunteer work as important as paid work.”

To less obvious reasons, you can build your own community while participating in community service. When you’re first starting out, it’s hard to be noticed at fancy dinners and boujee young professionals’ meet-ups. It’s even harder to find a more experienced fellow engineer, scientist, etc. who can help to propel your career forward. When you’re fresh out of college, you probably don’t have much in common with those 20-year veterans besides your alma mater or fellow Greek organization. For some, that’s enough. For many, you find yourself giving an elevator pitch and proceeding to bring up the same three facts about yourself. Why? Because small talk in professional settings is redundant. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? Did you watch the (insert sport here) game last night, and who did you root for? It is so easy to fall into the same conversations at the same company socials, and you begin to sound rehearsed and disinterested. You know where it’s hard to have a conversation about yourself? While serving food at a local soup kitchen, or while waiting to judge a middle school science fair.
When you’re helping those less fortunate, it is difficult to talk about yourself and your goals and interests. They say, “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” I have an addition to that adage: “shallow minds discuss one’s self”. I believe you build the deepest connections with people through conversations where you never talk about yourself. Besides, if you’re looking for a mentor-mentee relationship, wouldn’t you prefer someone who takes time out to help absolute strangers? How much more would they go out their way to promote you?

“Shallow minds discuss one’s self.”

My last reason to volunteer is not one that converts to a specific bullet to your resume or job application. It is one that changes the core of who you are and what you believe. Volunteering serves as a reality check for STEM professionals. After many years being engulfed in academia, we tend to forget not everyone has the same basic knowledge and opportunities that we have. The BLS found that 93% of STEM occupations have wages above the national average. Although unemployment in STEM occupations seems to be on trend with all professional and related workers, it remains below the national average. There is a certain privilege that comes with having a four-year degree, and especially one in the STEM field. When a 22-year-old new college graduate moves across the country for their new computer scientist or aerospace engineering job, making $68,000 or $71,000 on average, respectively, they may find themselves out-of-touch with the realities of society. You may not realize that only 40% of 4th-grade students performed at or above the Proficient level in mathematics in 2015, and only 25% score were at are above Proficient at the 12-grade level. This problem is only exacerbated if students are economically disadvantaged, with women and underserved minorities having additional roadblocks in math education as well. That’s that intersectionality for y’all! Mathematics and science education is a privilege, and volunteering your skills to teach others will keep you both grateful and checked into the reality of your privilege.
We have already talked about thinking critically on how you can use your professional skills to volunteer, but here are more tips on how to get involved and how to meld community service into your professional life.
  1. Find professional social organizations that participate in community service.
When moving to a new city, or just transitioning into professional life, one of the hardest aspects of “adulting” is finding other professionals of similar age groups or cultural backgrounds. One way to meet like-minded people is to join social groups. Many of these organizations participate in group community service activities or adopt certain charities. By getting involved with these groups, you can give back to the local community while meeting new people. If your group doesn’t already volunteer, start an initiative…and show them this blog post!
  1. Diversify your service activities.
Sometimes we get involved in organizations and becoming so invested, we tend to only do activities with that group of friends. The importance of diversifying your service activities is to make sure you are not in a bubble on your views. Like those statistics on math proficiency in American youth, if you were not actively involved in STEM outreach, you may not know this is a major concern in America. I encourage you to volunteer outside of activities held by your regular group of friends/colleagues. This is just another way to keep you in check.
  1. Look for company opportunities to volunteer.
This is along the lines of the first tip about finding others to participate with, but this tip is geared towards interns and new hires. If you are working for a company and still making your first impression, what better way to show how invested you are in company culture than participating in company-led community service activities. Most companies adopt local schools and charities. They give student tours and serve as guest speakers at events. The community service activities advertised at companies normally require less time but are greatly beneficial to those who need it. If you are looking for something after work, these are perfect!
  1. Keep a service portfolio.
Volunteerism is a lifestyle choice. Therefore you will probably be blessed to partake in various community service activities in your lifetime. Sometimes you forget what you’ve done. Only about 20% of professionals put their volunteer work on their resumes. Based on everything I’ve already said, I’m pretty sure it goes without mentioning that you should include volunteer work on your resume. However, you may not be able to put EVERYTHING on there either! I suggest, just like with every other part of your resume, tailor the volunteer section of your resume to the job or opportunity that you want. Research their core values and community outreach, and put experiences that tie into those on your resume. Additionally, keep a larger resume section, or what I call a “service portfolio”, that you can pull from.
  1. Be passionate about what you do.
This is by far the most important tip, and if this is the only part of the blog post that you remember, you’ll be okay. Never, and I emphasize this, NEVER volunteer just to network or to build your resume. If you do, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed, unhappy and unsuccessful. You must be passionate about what you do. Too many STEM professionals chosoe careers in which they do not feel fulfilled. Although this is a whole other issue in the STEM community, how much worse is it to get off from doing something you hate for money to go volunteer doing something you hate for free? If you don’t care to make a difference in other people’s lives, it will show and be more detrimental to the recipients of service rather than beneficial. I advise you to try different service activities to find one that you enjoy because the most important part of volunteering is doing it with a genuine smile.
With that being said, I hope reading this has motivated you to get involved in your community. What types of community service are you interested in? How do you think you can use your skills to give back, and what tips do you have to those interested in volunteering? Write in the comments below!

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