Volunteering in a home away from home

Is it possible to volunteer while studying at MIT?
Dec 2020
Mariel
G.-M.
History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society

When I was accepted to the Comparative Media Studies Master’s program at MIT, I had spent the previous five years working on technology for social justice nonprofits in Mexico. This work exposed me to and involved me in hundreds of projects with all sorts of collectives and organizations, and it showed me that my very favorite work is the one that happens at the grassroots level. However, when I went on hiatus to pursue my Master’s, I promised myself that I would take a break from the activism that had filled up my schedule in years prior. I thought I would take a couple of years to live in a different city, and hunker down to study; the last thing I needed was to commit hours every week to fights I did not understand by virtue of being an outsider in my new home. Moreover, public school students in Boston did not need one more student mentor that would fall off the face of the Earth when final papers were due.

I did not know then that my two-year Master’s program would turn into a PhD and I’d find myself celebrating four years in Boston. I did not foresee the psychological challenges and changes in my life, nor the eventual mutation of my identity from “Mexican activist on a sabbatical” to “Boston-based researcher and practitioner.” My break from volunteering eventually became untenable. However, it is hard to prepare for a future you cannot foresee, so I do not judge the past me for my arbitrary commitments. I will, however, put it this way: if I could go back in time to give newly-admitted me a piece of advice, it would be to not give up volunteering ever.

In my hardest seasons at MIT, I ended up making many of my warmest memories through volunteering. I think of the sense of wonder I’ve felt in the creative fundraisers I have attended, from block parties to family walks by the water. I think of the joy in the music of the band in City Life/Vida Urbana’s anti-eviction marches, of meals shared with unhoused neighbors in the shelters in Cambridge. I think of the radio show about careers that we broadcasted live from the East Boston firehouse that houses ZUMIX, a youth arts organization that became my third home in Boston, and of the many creative afternoons spent with Keneisha, the brilliant high schooler who hosts the show with me.

Whether you have ample nonprofit experience or you simply enjoy giving an hour or two to a cause you care about, interfacing with the local ecosystem of community groups, mutual aid networks, and more established organizations is a rich source of learning. In Boston I have encountered role models and examples of community action that I aspire to replicate, and I have learned to cherish practices I took for granted back home. I have witnessed some of the most moving, beautiful, thoughtful ways of organizing around the visions that folks have for the Wampanoag land on which we stand.

With these considerations in mind, here are 5 volunteering-related pointers I wish I could go back and share with newly-admitted me:

  1. Dedicate some time to look at snapshots of nonprofit work in the Greater Boston area.
    You don’t actually have to do all the research yourself. MIT students are lucky to have the Priscilla King Gray Center, which hosts public service open houses and events to connect with local nonprofits. Sign up for their events and find out more on their website. You can also learn about volunteering opportunities organized by Graduate Residences or MIT Clubs through the GSC Anno.
  2. Ask yourself: Will it bring joy?
    Not everything in life needs to be emotionally rewarding, but your first engagement with volunteering in Boston should be. I found it much easier to create an on-going commitment (and honor it during the busiest times of each semester) when I found an organization that brought happy tears to my eyes every time I visited.
  3. Make time and commuting commitments as realistic as possible.
    It’s fine to drop off the face of the planet during finals, but you should give the group a heads up about that – perhaps you don’t want them to rely on you for their biggest fundraiser on the day you’re submitting your last paper. Be aware that mentorship and instruction programs rely on weekly attendance, so you might not want to venture too far away from your neighborhood if you want to be able to sustain it.
  4. Be on the lookout for easier, less demanding commitments.
    Nonprofits in the United States work very hard to create engagement opportunities for folks who don’t want to commit too much; learn to recognize them and take them if you don’t want on-going duties. If you don’t see yourself setting aside hours every week, find one-time (or less periodic) engagement opportunities, for example: event set up, one-time logistics help, attending a fundraiser.
  5. Approach volunteering without thinking about your CV.
    Every career advisor will give you great arguments about the beauty of having relevant volunteering experience on your CV. I will challenge that and say that 90% of the most meaningful volunteering I have done is not reflected on my CV (and I have still been able to get jobs when I’ve needed them). It’s okay to choose different activities because they sound fun.
     

A bonus for international students: Be aware of the rules involved

If you are an international student, pay close attention (see ISO guidance) on the types of volunteering allowed (or not) on a student visa. If you are looking to work with teenagers, for example, be aware that a background check will be performed on you. In many places, you will have to sign liability waivers.

As I write this post during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am spending most of my free time helping neighbors severely affected by disruptions. If you are a graduate student at MIT, you can help your neighbors by donating time or funds to your local mutual aid network. I know that, for all the loss and pain that this experience will leave in my soul, I will also remember the gratification of helping neighbors keep their families housed and fed. I hope you will consider joining me. If you do, I wish you memorably happy volunteering!