In the midst of the heat wave we are experiencing in our area, it seemed right to comment on some tips to succeed when volunteering during the summer months. While this is primarily aimed at undergraduate students applying to medical school, the same concepts should apply to anyone who is spending some time giving back to their community this summer, including anyone applying for advanced medical degrees or even those looking ahead towards residency.
1 | Understand Why You Are Volunteering
While many consider volunteer work to be another mandatory checkbox to tick off when going through the litany of requirements for applying to medical school or doctorate programs, it is crucial to remember that no one else involved – including the preceptors and those you are aiming to help – are there for that reason and may depend on you. For this reason, I find it best if you only take volunteering opportunities you yourself are also passionate about. This way, you will be just as interested and invested as your peers.
It is always clear to me when I have students volunteering or shadowing that are doing it for the wrong reasons. There is a major difference between working with someone who is interested in what you want to teach them as opposed to someone who is there to satisfy hours. Now, I get that we all must do things we do not want to do, and I have done my fair share of trudging through tasks. That being said, I always made sure to stay involved and interested, particularly in volunteering tasks that entailed working with patients.
2 | Be Present
As a student, most of you will be constantly stressed during the school year trying to juggle classes, research, and what little time you have left for yourselves. Thus, it is not surprising that the little time that you have off during the summer is precious and goes quickly. I remember wanting to travel, spend as much time with friends, and relax as much as possible between each semester.
I found it helpful to budget my time wisely and not overdo things. All the fun plans you have for your time away from classes are key factors in the battle to maintain proper mental health while preparing yourself for a long career in medicine. It is important that you don’t sacrifice your own health in order to volunteer to help others; after all, your goal is to spend a lifetime healing and caring for people. If I knew I had a particularly busy week ahead, I would avoid scheduling a bunch of volunteer shifts and make up for it in the future. Much like those who are volunteering for something they are not passionate about, it is also clear when a volunteer’s mind is elsewhere. If you do not think you can be fully present for the task ahead, it is better to reserve your energy for the next time you can come in to help.
3 | Remain Professional
The issues above are brought about by the fact that – as their name implies – volunteering opportunities are unpaid work, often managed by someone who is also volunteering, and can lack the organization and structure of a job or coursework. Hence, people often get sloppy and treat it as something that can be blown off or done without giving full effort. Again, that mentality goes to the “checking boxes” of applying to medical school or higher education.
In my eyes, I always respect those who come to volunteer work with a clear task and goal in mind. Even for the most simple and menial task, show up ready to help and make someone’s day (or life) better. This will often lead you to find a new passion or learn a new skill, things that you can carry on with you beyond the confines of that experience. I first learned how to suture lacerations while volunteering in a clinic for the uninsured population of my community. By being present and motivated, those above you (in rank) will hopefully take notice and aim to reward your professional and diligent attitude by giving something back to you in the form of teaching.
4 | Enjoy It
This goes without saying, but volunteering should be fun! There is no reason that this should be a grueling task. For those of us who are truly dedicated to clinical medicine, volunteering is one of the few times we get to help others without being weighed down by bureaucracy or meaningless paperwork. Learn to enjoy working with others who need your help – be it those who need medical care, research volunteering, or otherwise. As with any task, you will get a lot more done if you are enjoying yourself.
5 | Look for Opportunities
Any time you are assigned a task, look for opportunities. Often you will find that you can achieve a higher level of involvement in patient care (no matter what your role is or what type of volunteering you are doing) if you look for opportunities to help solve challenges. Volunteering organizations can be understaffed or may have unresolved issues that no one has had the time to solve. Look forward to these issues as a way to make your mark.
Similarly, volunteering is a great way to meet like-minded preceptors and mentors. Developing bonds with people who care about a task as much as you do, but with a slightly more advanced outlook, can really help propel your own education. Most medically oriented people have an inherent love for teaching and passing on their craft and knowledge. Use this to your advantage by findings ways to enhance your own life beyond just the joy of helping others. Some of the best learning I have done and many of the life-defining conversations and experiences I have had have come through opportunities gained by being at the right place at the right time, while volunteering towards something I care about deeply.
There is no answer in the foreseeable future for managing the stress of applying to advanced medical degrees, be it medical school, physician’s assistant school, advanced nursing degrees, therapy programs, and even residency beyond a doctorate program. The crushing level of commitment it takes to achieve success in these endeavors can be a deal-breaker for some or a source of bitterness and resentment towards the whole process for others.
I urge you to not consider volunteering as just another task to get done so you can get to the next step. If you are someone who cannot find joy in any of the opportunities around you, then consider finding paid employment or research positions to fill your time and application instead. Volunteering should be a fun and exciting time in your life, and that is easiest to achieve if you find something you are passionate about to join. We all find our passions eventually and expanding your mind and education through as many opportunities as you can will help you do that. Approach every volunteer experience with that in mind and try to make the most of your time making health care better.