People sorting canned food into marked bins.
Photo via Olivia Chow/Flickr
Volunteers sort food to give to the homeless community at the Daily Bread Food Bank on Thanksgiving Day 2014. Students should try volunteering as a way to give back to the community.

Volunteering is one of the coolest, most valuable things you can do for yourself and your community–especially in college. Americans are volunteering more than ever. According to a 2018 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, 30.3 percent of Americans volunteer their time each year. When I started at UNR in fall 2015, I knew it wouldn’t be easy to break into the professional world with a bachelor’s in English. Unfortunately, it’s a chicken and egg problem that many college graduates face: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without getting a job. That pain is multiplied in fields related to liberal arts. You need the degree, you need the experience and you need a portfolio. 

Every day, I went to class and then left to go to my retail job. I was learning valuable skills, and building up those years of experience employers want to see, but there wasn’t anything to show off. I was seeing the same people every day, doing the same exercises in class, going to work to talk to the same people about the same products and commiserating with my friends about how rote the college lifestyle is when you’re not on vacation. Not to generalize, but this seems to be a common theme at the university. 

So, after wallowing in anxiety about my potential future, I researched organizations that spend their time and energy making Reno, and the rest of Nevada, a better place. Many of these organizations are operating with a budget and workforce fit for a town of 10,000–not a city of 350,000 and growing. We have amazing, world-class nonprofits in Reno that provide services to the LGBTQIA+ community, people affected by domestic abuse, kids in underserved populations, homeless animals and lots more. Usually the bottleneck for these groups isn’t money, it’s manpower. They won’t turn down free help and can train-away a lack of experience. 

I started with the Nevada Humane Society shortly after I came to UNR. NHS is an incredible example of no-kill sheltering with a 95 percent save rate, and they’re a model for that philosophy around the United States. I got to meet leaders in the nonprofit sector from across America, write and edit reports and other media that I could add to my portfolio, work with and find homes for thousands of animals, develop and manage projects and landed a paid internship with them for a period of time. The connections, the portfolio, the skills, the life-long friends and the hilarious, heartbreaking and beautiful memories I made have stuck with me and opened so many doors that I didn’t think even existed. 

And it doesn’t need to be a huge time-sink. I found the Northern Nevada Chapter of the American Red Cross–a group with four paid staff members who cover an area of 87,000 square miles and 13 of Nevada’s 16 counties. The Chapter provides assistance during the thousands of home fires that happen here each year, including free preparedness education, help for refugees and so many other things. Volunteers do almost all of this, which means they get the chance to take on truly important, skill-building positions for as small a commitment of five hours per month. I was able to conquer my fear of public speaking, work on publications, help people on what was likely the worst day of their lives, take on true leadership positions, and again, connect with people all over Northern Nevada who are dedicated to their community and improving it. Now, I work for the American Red Cross full time. 

Please consider working with one of the nonprofits here in Reno or spend time helping your student media outlets like The Nevada Sagebrush. It’s hard to find extra time in college, but volunteering is one way you can directly affect change in your community, meet new people, put to use the skills you’ve learned in class and open up professional doors that you might have never thought of. And have fun–that’s important too.

Roberth Roth is a Volunteer Services Specialist at the Red Cross and former Sagebrush Copywriter, Robert can be contacted at robert.roth2@redcross.org