choosing a major

These days, high school students are encouraged to try out possible careers or majors through jobs and internships.

But sometimes that’s easier said than done.

High school internships aren’t always easy to find. Employers often prefer college students, can’t afford to pay interns, or don’t have the time to supervise them. Teen part-time jobs, while valuable, may not offer the kind of experience that will tell you if engineering is the right major for you.

One solution: community service.

You probably think of volunteering as a way to help other people, and it certainly should. It is, after all, about service and helping the community. But volunteering is also good for you—not just for the warm and fuzzy reasons, but because it can offer opportunities to practice your skills, learn new ones, and see if you’re really interested in a field or profession. In fact, volunteering is often a good first step before you commit to an internship.

The best volunteers are the ones who engage in what they are doing, are interested enough to see where an organization needs help, and proactively offer solutions. Whether you’re in a formal internship or a community service job, making yourself valuable is a critical skill that will serve you well in life.

Where to start?

  1. Take an inventory of your own skills and interests. Do you love math? Are you a whiz on social media? Do you have a way with kids or animals? Are you creative or a good problem-solver? Are you interested in medicine or music or climate change? Ask a parent, teacher, or friend to help you brainstorm your skills and then make an actual list. Don’t be shy. Everyone is good at something. Turn your list into a resume or talking points that you can use to find a volunteer position.
  2. Consider what you want to learn. Volunteering is a great way to figure things out about yourself. If you’re thinking of becoming a surgeon, it would be helpful to find out now that just working at a blood drive makes you queasy. Volunteering is also a way to meet professionals in a field that interests you. If the law intrigues you, for example, considering volunteering at an organization that advocates for underserved populations or works on issues like housing rights. You might be stuffing envelopes, but you’ll have a chance to network with lawyers and other advocates.
  3. Make a list of the nonprofits around you who might need help. Start by stopping in your school counselor’s office. Then check in at local libraries, religious or youth organizations, hospitals, and community centers. Ask around the neighborhood. Look on social media and the virtual bulletin boards at online community sites, and, yes, check the actual community bulletin board at the local supermarket. Tell everyone you know what you’re interested in pursuing and what you’d like to be doing. This is great time to polish your networking skills.
  4. Start small; think big. The trick with any organization is getting in the door. Once you are in, you are likely to have a chance to do other volunteer jobs, even if your first one makes you roll your eyes. You might start by restocking books at the library, but later get a chance to help with story hours for young children, to create a special event on a topic that interests you, or work with the staffer who manages the library website.
  5. Be creative. Just because you’re interested in science or technology, doesn’t mean you’re limited to volunteering in a traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) setting. The community theater group, for example, might value your ability to create special effects or to get Peter Pan to fly. And be open to learning new things. You might start out in theater tech and then discover the intricacies of sound engineering, or, heck, that you’d rather be on stage than backstage. That’s the beauty of community service—it will help you discover a whole new community.

For more ideas, download TeenLife’s eBook “50 Community Service Ideas for Teen Volunteers.”

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Written by Marie Schwartz
Marie Schwartz is the CEO and Founder of TeenLife Media. She launched TeenLife in 2007 after moving to Boston with her family and discovering that there were no information resources for families with teenagers. Now, TeenLife's award-winning website lists thousands of summer, performing arts, therapeutic and gap year programs; schools; college-admission resources and volunteer opportunities for teens throughout the world.