Why International Students Should Explore Volunteer Opportunities in College

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By Azara Lantra
Last updated on August 7, 2023

Make a difference and gain new skills by volunteering during college.

A female college student wearing a "volunteer" t shirt with her arm around a young girl, and both are smiling at the camera.

Did you know that volunteering is an important value in American culture? For many people in the US, especially college students, volunteer work is a way to give back to the community, gain valuable life experiences, and meet new people.

As an international student planning to study in the US, you’ll likely find that volunteering can become an essential part of your campus experience. There are many benefits of volunteering: not only does it make you feel good about yourself, it can also help you learn new skills, advance your career, and understand your community better!

So, what exactly is volunteering, and why is volunteering important? This guide to volunteering will help you learn more about which volunteering opportunities are available for you and how to get started.

What Is Volunteering?

Volunteering is spending your time and skills on a task or project to help others, without getting paid. Volunteer opportunities for college students could cover a range of activities with student volunteer programs on and off campus, nonprofit organizations that focus on community service, or groups that work with specific types of people (e.g., children, the elderly, or differently abled).

Volunteer work can be a one-time experience, like organizing a cleanup day on campus. Or volunteer community service can be ongoing, such as mentoring and tutoring students once a week over a semester, or summer volunteer programs helping out at the local animal shelter. The amount of time required for volunteer opportunities will depend on the organization and the type of volunteer work the organization needs.

Can International Students Volunteer?

International students can choose to volunteer while studying in the US. As an F-1 or M-1 student visa holder, you can volunteer at nonprofit organizations operating for a charitable or humanitarian cause, without any type of compensation.

Keep in mind the rules and regulations outlined by the Department of Homeland Security, including conditions such as:

  • You cannot receive any taxable income for the volunteering activities performed

  • The volunteer position should not be a role that an employer previously or in the future can hire someone to fill

There are many service opportunities for college students that you can find by searching online, through your university, or by word of mouth. For international students, volunteering can be an ideal way to get a better understanding of US culture, learn how to adapt and learn in unique environments, and collaborate with different types of people. You can access information and opportunities available on AmeriCorps, a well-known US volunteer organization. Your student advisor may also guide you on other volunteering activities available on campus or in the nearby community.

Consider volunteer activities that align with your interests, offer new learning experiences, and/or provide opportunities to make friends who share similar interests! Volunteering can also benefit you emotionally, supporting your mental health as you work with others to assist underserved communities and causes. Volunteer service opportunities for college students adds value to your portfolio as well, as it shows you can work well in a team setting and are willing to tackle challenges.

Volunteering benefits can include gaining a sense of belonging to the community and building relationships with people from multiple cultures – key parts of the studying in the USA experience for international students. The knowledge and perspective you gain from your volunteer work enhances your overall academic journey in the US and helps you grow both professionally and personally.

Benefits of Volunteering

For international students, the benefits of volunteering can be a memorable part of your time studying in the USA. While giving back to your community is a rewarding experience in itself, it can also have a positive impact on you and how you experience campus life.

The best thing about volunteering ... was meeting new people and [the] new experience of customer service, which taught me selflessness and networking. I would do it over and over again.” – Catherine from Kenya, Florida International University

Volunteer work can help you create a better environment for yourself and the people around you. Many studies show that volunteering leads to health benefits like reducing stress, combating loneliness, and creating a sense of belonging. According to a 2007 Syracuse University study, volunteers were 42% more likely to be happy than non-volunteers. Volunteer work may even make you smarter: a 2019 study from John Hopkins University found that volunteering improved brain and cognitive functionality!

So, we know that volunteering can make you feel better, both in mind and spirit. Now, here are three more reasons to consider volunteering and community service in your free time:

1. Volunteering Develops New Skills

As an international student, you can use volunteering as a way to gain new skills or improve your current set of skills. You could also try volunteer work related to your degree.

I’m involved with Neuroscience Alliance club [and] I volunteer at Shepherd’s Hope Orlando as an eligibility specialist, which exposes me to how doctors work, dealing with patients, and understanding the American health care system. It gives [me] a big picture of what medicine is about in the US.” – Alesia, med student from Russia, University of Central Florida

2. Volunteering Improves Your Employment Prospects

Volunteering for college students is good for future careers. Because volunteer work can build skills employers find valuable, your resume will stand out with your community service experiences.

As an international student, if you do not have prior work experience, volunteering may be a way to show employers what you are capable of. For example, volunteering shows that you are able to take initiative – after all, you found an amount of time to help others while also managing your studies! You can also talk about how your volunteer work developed your soft skills such as being a team player, ability to plan, and time management.

Looking for internship opportunities? Shorelight’s Career Premium offers virtual internships for international students >

3. Volunteering Builds New Connections

One of the best parts of volunteering is meeting new people. For an international student, it can be challenging to build relationships in an unfamiliar place. But with volunteering, you will be working together with new groups of people to achieve a common goal. You will have multiple opportunities to talk and interact with people in a friendly environment.

Zyman, a first-year student from Venezuela studying biomedical engineering at Florida International University, made many personal connections during her volunteer program. “I worked … along with 35 fellow FIU students, and I really learned a lot from each one of them. We really built up a family, and I was really impressed how each one of them was willing to help me,” she said.

Where Can College Students Find Volunteer Opportunities?

For international students, there are so many possible volunteer opportunities to consider, both with volunteer work on campus or community service with a nonprofit organization. Regardless of your major or where you are studying in the US, here are some volunteer ideas and tips to get started.

Get to Know Yourself

While volunteering is a valuable experience, it is important to plan where you are going to spend your time and how it benefits you long term. So, before choosing where to volunteer, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are my goals and interests?

  • What is the amount of time I can realistically spend on volunteering? (Remember, classes come first!)

  • Which volunteering opportunities fit into my busy schedule?

  • Are there any logistics (e.g., transportation, language barriers, etc.) that could make it difficult for me to volunteer?

  • Does this volunteer opportunity fit with what interests me and/or my future career?

  • Will I have fun?

Check with Your University

One of the best ways to find volunteer work is to look at what is available at your university or college. These volunteer opportunities are usually listed on the campus website. Reach out to student organizations that may be involved with giving back to the community. You can also ask career centers, libraries, and museums if they have any volunteer programs.

If you would like to know more about volunteering opportunities at the universities and colleges you are considering, speak to a Shorelight advisor. They are always here to help.

Look Up Volunteer Opportunities Online

There are many volunteer organizations outside of your university or college that you can check out. Try looking for volunteer work at places like local schools, soup kitchens, animal shelters, and nonprofit organizations.

Some organizations also allow remote volunteering opportunities, meaning that the volunteer has the ability to complete and submit tasks online. Remote volunteer work can range from helping out with customer support to writing a blog post. This is especially helpful for college students with busy schedules and the inability to travel frequently.

Volunteering in college is a truly rewarding experience. Giving back to the community is a chance to make a difference and to improve yourself in the process. Find volunteering opportunities that work best for your schedule, and remember to have fun!

Discover how Shorelight academic support programs can help grow your future career opportunities >