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Get the most out of volunteering while at university

At CUE we are always looking for ways to give back to the community and, for students, volunteering during their university years is one way to serve while also increasing your well-being. 

Many of CUE’s programs and scholarships require volunteer hours, and recruiters told us that the experiences and skills gained while volunteering is something they look for on your résumé. 

We spoke with CUE students about the value of volunteering and heard from various organizations about the opportunities available for students.

A CUE student’s experience volunteering to combat literacy challenges in children

CUE student Alejandra Barreiro says her experience volunteering for United for Literacy has been “uplifting and life transforming”. 

Low literacy skills are directly linked to poverty, poor health, and high unemployment – so volunteers in this area are vital. Alejandra says that helping children one-on-one can really boost their reading skills compared with them trying to learn in a sometimes intimidating classroom setting. 

“I enjoy reading books with students and watching their confidence and curiosity grow,” says Alejandra. “We have to be very creative in order to catch children’s attention, and sometimes if a student is very shy we have to take it slow. We take it step-by-step by doing games and helping children come out of their shell – over time you see them gain confidence. I feel that because we teach individually and not in a classroom of 30-40 students, they feel seen and having that individual focus helps them gain skills so much faster.”

Alejandra, who majors in Psychology with a minor in Early Childhood Education, says that an important requirement of many courses is volunteering and she says that aligning her volunteer work with her passion has given her valuable teaching skills. 

“It has been exciting to see these children come alive and have the motivation to learn,” says Alejandra. 


Young people can be exactly what many organizations are looking for

Students are often the perfect people to hire as volunteers because they can relate to young people. There are many organizations out there with a focus on helping children and youth in need, and students will have many opportunities to gain leadership skills. 

“A mom in crisis may be struggling and a student can more easily relate to a child who is closer in age – they can be more of a peer to the child – especially if they are teenagers,” said Melissa Strife from Safe Families Canada.

Students who have a career goal of working with young people could benefit from volunteering for organizations like Safe Families or United for Literacy. 

“The great value of volunteering is that students will often find wisdom within that they didn’t know they possessed,” said Melissa. 

Students learn skills in retail – while helping a good cause

If you’re a CUE student taking business or management courses and want to supplement them with real world experiences there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer in a retail setting.

If employers can see you have recent volunteer experience on your résumé, you may have a greater chance of being hired. According to Monster.com, volunteers have a 27 per cent higher likelihood of finding a job after time away from work than non-volunteers.

Volunteering at organizations like Habitat for Humanity’s Restore will teach vital skills for the workplace.

“Students will learn leadership skills and build on teamwork skills within a supportive environment,” says Monica Littleton with Habitat for Humanity. 

“Students will also do a variety of tasks – every day could be different. Volunteers could help unload donations, organize, sort or assemble products,” says Monica.

To make the most out of your volunteer experience, Monica advises that it’s a good idea to set goals for yourself. Consider if there are any skills you would like to develop or strengthen and then volunteer yourself for those positions within the store. 

Take part in the festival atmosphere in Canada’s Festival City

With over 50 festivals in Edmonton annually, according to Explore Edmonton, there are endless opportunities to pursue your passion. While there are many perks for volunteering at festivals, like free tickets, marketing swag and food, the best reason for working at festivals is the friendships you’ll make. It’s easy to build strong bonds when you see the same people each year, for example, the Edmonton’s Folk Festival reports that 80 per cent of volunteers return year after year.

“I have met people I wouldn’t normally get the chance to meet” says volunteer Doug Taylor, from Arts on the Ave. Doug volunteers on a regular basis and says he has met famous musicians and driven Olympic athletes around town as a volunteer driver. 

Volunteers will be placed depending on their preferences, skills, interests and qualifications. When applying, be sure to list all of these areas to be placed in a position that’s most suited to you.  “Students can take part in a variety of capacities,” says Doug, speaking specifically about the recent Deep Freeze festival. “They could be involved in helping out in the kitchen at 7 a.m. or assisting with security and safety, like attending to the fire pit. Volunteering is a great opportunity to learn all the inner workings of a festival.” 

Doug says that volunteers at festivals experience a “close and vibrant community.”  He emphasizes that the festival treats volunteers exceptionally well. “Sign up, you will have a lot of fun!”

Align your talents and build interpersonal skills working for people with disabilities

Thousands of people in the city face barriers due to physical disabilities, and if you have a particular passion for lowering the inequalities and biases within society, there are hundreds of organizations that need volunteers. 

Keep in mind that it requires more than just willingness to help. “it helps to have empathy and compassion for the challenges our clients face,” says Dayna Fox from CNIB, an organization that pairs volunteers with blind people to help them thrive. 

Student volunteers for nonprofits can benefit in a huge way by gaining communication and interpersonal skills when working directly with clients that will benefit them in all walks of life. 

Excellent communication skills need to be developed for volunteers to effectively assist in CNIB Vision Mates program – where volunteers teach new smartphone apps to their clients. “It helps if a student is very techy, they can be paired with clients who need training on accessible apps. We provide training to students who then provide personalized training to clients in one-to-one sessions,” says Carl. 

While the skills gained is one benefit for volunteers, Carl says the greatest benefit is the bond developed between volunteers and clients. 

“A lot of our volunteers build strong relationships with their clients that can be lifelong,” says Carl.

Final round-up of tips for student volunteers

After speaking with a variety of organizations at CUE’s Volunteer Day during Career week. Here are our top three tips for students to consider: 

1. Consider the skills you already have to offer

If you have an interest in teaching children, volunteer in areas where you will be working closely with them. If you love the great outdoors, volunteer at outdoor festivals or for Parks Alberta, for example. If you have entrepreneurial abilities or leadership skills seek areas in the nonprofit retail sector, perhaps. If you have technical skills, consider volunteering to assist elderly in using their new computer. There are endless areas for where your talents can lead you. 

2. Make goals and seek volunteer opportunities where you’ll learn something new

There are many volunteer positions that provide training for volunteers, and provide you with experiences you can’t always get at university. There are plenty of opportunities to gain leadership skills by working with youngsters who look to you as a role model, through volunteering for sports teams, teaching reading skills, or caring for children to help parents in need.  If you want to work on your writing or graphic design skills, consider working for a community newsletter or working on advertising for an animal shelter. Once you feel like you have learned all you can in a position, feel free to look for other positions that can challenge you to learn more. 

3. There is no need to over-commit

Speaking with many organizations at the Volunteer Fair, they understand the time constraints of students. There are many organizations that ask for just two to four hours of your time each week. Melissa from Safe Families Canada says that even just two hours makes a big difference in a family’s life. If you don’t want a long-term commitment, a weekend event or festival might be more suitable for you. You can start off slowly, and once you know the time commitment which works for your schedule, keep it as is, or increase your time as you see fit.