4 Ways College Students Can Volunteer During COVID-19

4 Ways College Students Can Volunteer During COVID-19
portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
By Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

Published on September 2, 2020

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Campus closures mean more than just a switch to online classes — college students are also separated from nonacademic activities and interactions that take place on campus. From social activities and sports to concerts and clubs, the college experience has changed a lot this year due to the coronavirus outbreak.

College is often a time of growing awareness of community needs and enthusiasm for activism. One activity you may miss out on this fall is the opportunity to get involved with causes you're passionate about and groups you want to help.

While your school's community engagement offices may be closed or offering limited programs, if you want to get or stay involved with initiatives that are important to you, opportunities are available. And right now, many groups are urgently calling for more participation, particularly of college-aged students.

Below, we introduce four ways student volunteers can safely engage with and assist their communities during the global pandemic.

Become a Poll Worker

Poll workers are always needed. This year is no exception, and COVID-19 introduces numerous challenges to recruitment.

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, "Most poll workers have traditionally been over the age of 61, making them especially vulnerable to complications if they contract COVID-19." Younger volunteers can help fill the need for support for the upcoming election, ensuring that everyone who wants to vote at their local polling location can actually do so.

The National Association of Secretaries of State lists each state's eligibility requirements for poll-worker positions. In most cases you must be registered to vote, be of a minimum age, and have residency in the state and/or county where you want to serve. Training is provided, and some poll workers receive compensation for their efforts.

Poll Worker Volunteer Requirements

Set up polling locations with equipment and signs Answer general questions on site at polling locations Check in voters at polling locations Show voters how to use voting machines

The November election is fast approaching. If you're interested in supporting your community at the polls, answer the call on National Poll Worker Recruitment Day (September 1). You can also contact your local election office anytime.

Follow @BeAPollWorker and #HelpAmericaVote for more information.

Support Nonprofits in Your Area

Like the polls, many nonprofits rely on older volunteers to fulfill their missions. If you're interested in lending a hand, now is a great time to explore the possibilities.

The following are just a few of the national organizations actively seeking student volunteers. These groups will connect you with local offices in your community.

The most urgent needs currently posted on the national Red Cross website are volunteers to support blood drives and shelter services. Find out what your local chapter is looking for, which may include volunteer-from-home positions. The Red Cross also runs a college internship program, with positions available all around the country, including in Washington, D.C.

Known for coordinating volunteers to help build houses, this organization also needs people to assist with fundraising, advocacy, and education. Learn about Habitat for Humanity's college chapters, and find your local office for more details.

Food pantries and meal-delivery programs provide critical services across the U.S. every day. These services are particularly important during times of high unemployment, such as the current pandemic. Find your local food bank and ask how you can help. Current needs include sorting shelves, delivering meals, fundraising, and increasing awareness.

While these national groups are all excellent options, many local groups need help, too.

VolunteerMatch maintains a database of both on-site and virtual volunteering opportunities for college students. Here, you can search by location or category (e.g., advocacy and human rights, children and youth, environment) to narrow down your options.

Similarly, Idealist allows you to search for volunteer positions by location, position type (on-site versus remote), and area of interest.

Volunteer Virtually

The growing popularity of remote work and online learning have made it possible to volunteer from home. No matter your location, you can get involved in a wide array of activities, including research projects, global initiatives, and skills development.

Participate in Research Projects

Zooniverse coordinates volunteer support for professional researchers. Browse the active projects to learn more about potential roles and how they work. In "Iguanas From Above," for example, volunteers count iguanas in images taken by drone cameras to help researchers estimate current iguana populations on the Galapagos Islands.

Meanwhile, the "Every Name Counts" project asks volunteers to help document and digitize the names of victims of Nazi persecution from historical resources in the Arolsen Archives.

Join a Global Initiative

The United Nations (UN) invites volunteers to "address sustainable development challenges — anywhere in the world, from any device" — with its partner organizations. Search the UN Volunteers open opportunities page to explore available tasks and the estimated hours per week needed.

Current projects involve outreach and advocacy, translation, technology development, teaching and training, community organizing, writing, and more.

Hone and Utilize Your Skills

Want to share your expertise or develop new skills? If you're fluent in a second language, Translators Without Borders is looking for people to translate a variety of materials, such as medical texts and crisis-response messages.

Another option is the Smithsonian Institution's Transcription Center, which guides volunteers in the process of digitizing its immense collection of physical documents, including diaries, manuscripts, specimen labels, and land registers.

If you want to help people directly and have a knack for communicating, Crisis Text Line offers 30 hours of online training that prepares you to serve as a volunteer crisis counselor.

Take a Service-Learning Class

Service learning is a strategy that integrates academics and community service. Students in service-learning classes study and experience course topics in a real-world context. This unique educational approach not only benefits everyone involved but also provides a way to explore careers you're curious about.

Suffolk University describes four types of service learning you might encounter:

Direct: Interact with specific groups and perform services at an organization's location. Examples include tutoring young children and serving meals to the homeless. Indirect: Complete tasks needed by a community organization but not on site with clients, such as assisting with a social media awareness campaign. Research: Conduct research projects to collect, analyze, and report data that supports or informs the organization's work. Advocacy: Develop ways to increase public awareness or provide education and training on an issue being addressed by an organization, like racial equity or the importance of voting.

To find out which courses (if any) at your college incorporate service-learning strategies, talk to your school's community engagement office, your professors, and/or your academic advisor.

Your institution may also allow students to earn academic credit for documented volunteer work. Many programs accept structured community service work as independent study credit, but you'll most likely need to go through an application and approval process first. Make sure to find out what your school's requirements are before getting started.

Four young adult volunteers in matching blue jeans, white t-shirts, and face masks work together to hoist up the wall of a home the group is building.

andresr / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Volunteers Are Needed Now More Than Ever

While your college experience might not be what you expected this year, there are plenty of ways you can lend a helping hand. Through community service projects, you'll be able to connect with others, share your ideas and skills, learn more about yourself, and gain practical experience.

Whether you decide to work directly with a group in your area or participate in a remote project from the comfort of home, your support can and will make a difference.

Feature Image: Sladic / E+ / Getty Images

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