When I think back to my time as an incoming freshman two years ago, I can remember my desire to find activities beyond the classroom in which I could actively participate. One of the first programs I joined here at Elon University was the university’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity, from which I learned both the demands and the benefits of volunteering. But thinking back to my time spent volunteering has also shown me a serious issue among many volunteers: an issue of obligation.

While I certainly can’t fault certain organizations — Greek Life, for example — for prescribing a set number of volunteer hours for their members, the requirement does interfere with how members approach the concept of volunteering in the first place. When volunteering is made mandatory, with an established code of consequences for those who fail to volunteer as often as expected, volunteers hardly want to reflect on what their time and efforts really mean to them. 

To them, the point is that they did it — and not for the sake of volunteering itself, but for some third-party program.

The question of why we volunteer is becoming progressively harder to answer, and the only way to fully take advantage of opportunities in volunteering is to approach it with an open mind, as if it were our choice to participate from the start. We should carefully consider how we go about volunteering and how we inspire those around us to approach it.

In the immediate sense, volunteering is a gratifying experience because it can bring about positive change in the community. But what we take from volunteering in the long term depends on why we choose to do it and what we ultimately retain from doing it. In this sense, we shouldn’t have to stress about how often we volunteer. The focus should be placed on the quality of the experience — not the quantity.

In general, Elon is a proactive community, and it shows in the university’s numerous volunteer programs. But next time you engage in any kind of service work, consider your priorities for volunteering and what you could expect to take away from that work when acting under those priorities.

There’s no question that volunteering can be a positive force in both the internal and external sense, but the first step to realizing its full potential is to understand what we want volunteering to be, and how we can act to achieve that goal.