Meaningful Volunteer Experience

The April 27, 2011 tornado caused me to question this decision when I saw how my neighbors came together to help people because they simply loved their community. Several weeks later, I went to China for twelve days as part of a cultural and music exchange program. In our final concert in Beijing, a city of 11.5 million people, two men came up to the stage after our performance, one of them wearing a crimson Alabama T-shirt. He let out a “Roll Tide!” and proceeded to tell us about his experience at the University a few years earlier and that he couldn’t pass on an opportunity to reconnect with Alabamians. I realized I was headed to Vanderbilt because it sounded good on a résumé while my heart was firmly planted at the University, so I decided to follow my instincts. It is a decision I will never regret.

I’ll be among the first to tell you that the University isn’t without problems; however, I believe this university is one of the best at letting students take the lead in pursuing passions outside of the classroom. In 2012 I helped start an organization called Diabetes Education Team to address the growing diabetes crisis in Alabama. Through this I have been mentored by two of the best faculty advisors, Pamela Payne-Foster and Rebecca Kelly. Both of them supported and guided us, never saying any obstacle was too big (like getting Nick Saban on board for World Diabetes Day advocacy). We even partnered with a new initiative called the West End Health Project to start a free student-run clinic for residents of West End Tuscaloosa. Because of DiET, I have gained hundreds of hours of pragmatic, real-world experience on the ground in health care and community engagement.

I didn’t do any of this because a class forced it upon me, and I can’t tell you the last time I sat down to tally volunteer hours (what’s SLPro again?). I believe many students have lost sight of the true purpose of volunteering, and that’s a shame. Our university provides countless resources (FAC funding, the SOURCE, Honors College, Get on Board Day) that allow us to pursue our passions in the midst of a culture where students seek opportunities to stuff their résumé. This is no fault of the University specifically but of the way many students approach volunteering. It’s not about checking a box or reaching a certain number of hours; rather it’s about the value of the experience itself and the motives with which you approach it. My experiences gained through DiET and WEHP have been a more valuable learning experience than any class thus far, and I’m not the only student who will tell you that.

Robert F. Kennedy once said, “The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.” You only have four years here at the University: will you simply show up or will 
you contribute?

Alex Morris is a senior majoring in music performance and biology and the president of DiET.

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