How Schools are Redefining “Volunteer Work”

By Megan Cohen

I once saw this commercial for Feeding America, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing food for the less fortunate. All it showed was various volunteers handing out packages to families in need. There was nothing particularly special about it, so it seems strange that I would remember an ad from so many years ago, especially since it was a mere thirty seconds long. But looking back, it all makes sense. Like so many other people, I admire altruists.

Just hearing about someone volunteering at a food bank or helping out in a nursing home without receiving a cent in return is enough to deem them a Good Person, someone who does everything out of the kindness of their own heart. Unfortunately, while this archetype still exists, doing volunteer work is not an automatic qualifier for being considered a Good Person anymore. Why is this?

From the moment we enter high school, everything is suddenly focused on receiving that acceptance letter from your dream college. Not only does your focus shift drastically, but you also begin to see things in new ways. Everything now has the potential to boost your probability of being accepted. Playing a sport you love is no longer a hobby, but an extra accomplishment to add to your application. The same concept applies to volunteer work. Of course, there are still some true altruists out there, but for the most part, it’s no longer about helping your community. It’s about impressing admissions counselors.

While simply listing the number of hours you’ve spent volunteering is impressive enough, community service has been incorporated into a variety of school organizations, National Honor Society (NHS) and Key Club being only a few examples. It’s often said that having these sort of involvements on your application can make you stand out during the admissions process, upping your chance of securing a place in next year’s class. There are certainly students that join Key Club and volunteer for NHS just for the sake of volunteering, but for the most part, students are participating because they want to get into college. So at the end of the day, is it truly volunteer work?

I was once volunteering at an Easter egg hunt in Lansdowne to get hours for NHS. Like Key Club, you must clock in a certain number of volunteer hours in order to stay a part of the society. As I stood there in the freezing cold, I kept reminding myself how this would keep me in NHS, which would look good on my college application in the fall. That’s when it hit me: I wasn’t really doing volunteer work. I wasn’t here, battling the weather, because I wanted to help these kids have a memorable day. I just wanted to stay a part of something that would impress an admissions officer.

Volunteer work may not immediately benefit us, but if we end up getting into our top school because of all the hours we’ve put in, we’ll have eventually gotten something out of it, which is not what altruism is supposed to be about. It’s normally assumed that if no one is getting paid, it’s volunteer work. But that may no longer be the case.

That being said, is this truly a bad thing? Even if someone doesn’t have the most perfect intentions, they’re still doing useful, beneficial work. If a Key Club member hands someone a frozen meal solely for the purpose of getting hours, the person in need is still receiving a meal. I was at the egg hunt just to remain in NHS, yet kids were still having fun putting together the crafts we distributed.

Maybe this new twist on community service simply allows more people to benefit from it, seeing as it hasn’t  been taken away from those that the work was originally created for. It is still, however, safe to say that volunteer work is no longer what it used to be. No matter how much I’d like it to be true, I am not like those volunteers I saw on television all those years ago.