by Scott Simpson
Volunteering in a health care setting has many benefits. Stepping into a volunteer role inside a hospital, nursing home, pharmacy, dental office, or veterinary clinic can help clarify your career choice. It also has the potential to help you develop essential skills for your future profession. It will give you your own personal stories to complement your application into a health professional program.
A health-related volunteer experience can be valuable whether you are a high school student, college student, or mid-career person seeking a career change.
Importance to Career Decision-Making
Not sure if a health career is right for you? What better way to find out than by throwing yourself smack dab in the middle of one. But it is important to keep expectations in check. Your volunteer experience probably won’t put you in a front row seat of a lung or heart transplant. And put aside any thoughts of rushing the crash cart equipment down the hallway to save someone who has gone “code blue.” It’ll be much more mundane. Think more along the lines of talking to patients or family members in the waiting room or doing “rounds” to see if patients need water, more crackers, or simply some conversation.
Whatever your duties, you’ll still be able to observe and reflect on your potential career. As you volunteer, ask yourself:
- What are the day-to-day challenges of the profession I’m exploring?
- What would it be like to work with patients (who aren’t always in the best mood) on a regular basis?
- What skills and qualities seem to be important when working with patients?
Importance to Skill Development
Most importantly, your volunteer experience will give you the chance to see things from the viewpoint of the patient. Your ability to better understand, empathize, and reflect on the patient’s perspective as they go through the health care system is invaluable for your own skill development.
It will also provide an opportunity to practice and develop your ability to communicate and build your
confidence in connecting with patients. There will be situations where you might have to work through moments of ambiguity, and it will force you to step outside your comfort zone. Developing these skills and qualities is an important step on the path to becoming a health professional.
Consider the words from these undergraduate students who reflected on what they took away from their own volunteer experiences.
- Developing Confidence with Patients: “One thing that took me a long time to finally learn is that it’s pointless to be overly nervous or anxious when first entering a patient’s room. It can be a daunting task, but the worst thing that can happen is that they say “No” and then you just move on to the next person.”
- Becoming Comfortable with Ambiguity: “The advice I would give to someone looking to volunteer would be to not be afraid of the unknown. I went into my volunteer position knowing a general outline of what the organization was, but wasn’t really sure what it would be like working in a nursing home for very underprivileged people. However, I am very grateful that I put myself in a situation where I had no idea what to expect. I learned how to communicate and open up with people I never met like I never thought I’d be able to do.”
- Move Outside Your Comfort Zone: “It is important to be ready to be uncomfortable. For me, it was really difficult to randomly knock on doors and to be told that I would not be needed. Sometimes without a patient to visit, I often felt not needed. Another piece of advice that I would give is to be open, resilient, and welcoming. I learned that if I was not easily deterred by rejection, I would eventually find a job to do.”
Importance to Admissions Process
Health professional programs often use a “holistic review process” for their candidates. This type of review examines the person’s academic background and test scores, but also looks at the body of experiences they bring into the health program. “I want to help people” is a cliché that can send a shiver down the spine of an admissions committee member. The fact that you “want to help people” doesn’t hold much weight unless it is backed up with plenty of evidence.
Volunteering in a health care setting is one way to show your commitment and knowledge of the profession. It can provide evidence of serving others, giving back to one’s community, and (to some degree) a greater knowledge of the profession. The experiences you have while volunteering are critical to being able to better articulate how you have the qualities and drive necessary to make it through a rigorous health professional program.
Take a step toward starting your volunteer experience by exploring online. Many hospitals have a volunteer office or coordinator on staff to help people who want to get experience in this environment. The University of Minnesota’s Health Careers Center has a volunteer section on its website which has links to many of these volunteer service departments. The process of becoming a volunteer typically includes:
- completing an application
- gathering a couple of recommendation forms
- completing a simple background check
- attending a volunteer orientation session
It’s a fairly simple process to start and can be a very rewarding and valuable experience.
Scott Simpson is a career consultant in the Health Careers Center at the University of Minnesota. He has a Master of Science in Counseling and Student Personnel from Minnesota State University-Mankato, and a Bachelor of Science in Public Administration from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. Previously, he was the director of career services at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa working with college students and alumni engaged in various levels of career exploration or job search. The Health Career Center offers pre-health preparation services for University of Minnesota undergraduate students as well as high school students and career changers exploring health careers.