Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 28, 2023

Volunteering doesn't have to be a burden

By NATHAN MCDONALD | April 22, 2012

Volunteering can really suck. There's no curve to beat, no way to get an A+ to rub in your friends' faces and no prestigious accolades to tack on your resume. Where's the glory?  

In high school, I dutifully logged the required National Honor Society hours while thinking of the praise I would get from colleges.

"Just keep dipping this ladle into this lukewarm stuff for a few more hours and I'll be on my way to distinguished university greatness," I would tell myself.

Upon fulfilling the mandatory, and might I add, the minimum, volunteer service - yes, I know, "mandatory volunteer service" must be an oxymoron - I never thought of doing any more.  

That was, until I got to Hopkins.

At my first meeting, pre-professional advising told me that medical schools look for community service and volunteer work.  

"Here we go again," I thought.  

But I wasn't too afraid. High school had taught me a lot about getting where you want to go. I figured that I had been an overachieving, brown-nosing, resume-building, hoop-jumper then, so why couldn't I spend my four years at Hopkins being an overachieving, brown-nosing, resume-building, hoop-jumping, cut-throat premed?  

The first thing I did was sign up for the first five volunteer groups I saw at the student activities fair.

I then spent most of my freshmen year stumbling through the volunteer groups. I participated just enough to keep the groups on my resume, but not enough to actually be known by other people in the groups.

I was determined to trudge through the experience of volunteering for four years, just as I would trudge through living in the city of Baltimore.  

My lack of commitment paid-off. I could spend most of my time studying for my premed classes and participating in other "fun" extra-curricular activities while still saying I was a noble contributor to the community.  

I was destined for greatness, or in other words, an esteemed medical school of my choice.  

I must have been great at acting like a genuine community service member, because during my sophomore year, I was asked to start a new program within the Johns Hopkins Jail Tutorial Project that would tutor male juveniles at the Baltimore City Detention Center.  

I considered the situation carefully.  

The position would take real commitment, real time and real work, work that wouldn't show up on a volunteer timesheet or resume.

Still, I hesitantly accepted the offer.

If any of this volunteer nonsense encroached on my orgo study time, I was prepared to pull the cord and call the whole thing off.  

Every Friday afternoon, six of us Hopkins students went to the detention center and worked one-on-one with a 14-to-17-year-old male that had been tried as an adult. After the first few weeks of the program, something didn't feel right.  

I realized I had gotten a lot more than I had bargained for.

For once, I wasn't dreading my volunteer work. In fact, I was looking forward to it. I had also stopped snickering about the city of Baltimore.  

One of the first teens I worked with at the detention center, who I'll call Shawn, was 16-years old, had two kids and no less than three garage-spun face tattoos.

Though Shawn hadn't gone to school since the eighth grade, he quickly picked-up on learning how to add and subtract fractions and perform long division. Some day, he hopes to take his General Education Development test.

Shawn really shone, however, when it came to music and poetry. The 16 hours a day he was forced to be in a cell, he spent writing songs and raps. Each week, I would give him words like "ameliorate" and "eradicate." Then the following week, he would come back with a song or rap that incorporated those words. It's generally not common to hear four-syllable words in vulgar raps about guns and drugs, but Shawn managed to do it.

In doing so, he revealed to me what it's like to grow up in a part of Baltimore that has never heard of James Watson and Francis Crick - a part of Baltimore that seems a world away from Hopkins.

Every Friday, I still have the privilege of spending time with teenage offenders at the city detention center. I've never gotten any awards or praise for it. But that's okay, because I've gotten something much more valuable.

I've gained some of my most rewarding friendships from people I never thought I would associate with, and I've built an intimate relationship with the city of Baltimore. In the process, maybe I have compromised my chances of going to that prestigious medical school, but at least I've finally become something more than just a Hopkins premed.  

If words like "obligation" and "burden" come to your mind when you hear "community service" or "volunteer hours," then you haven't found the right work. Rather, you will know you've found the right experience when it's no longer an act of altruism: You'll be getting too much out of it.  

So put a little of yourself into Baltimore, and you'll get a lot out of Baltimore.

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