Sophomores with last names N-Z were supposed to call at 1:00. At 12:55, I was sitting on my bed, phone in hand, ready to press “dial.” The instant the clock turned to 1:00, I called.
“Thank you for calling our volunteer hotline. All positions for the upcoming semester have been filled. Please leave a voicemail to be added to our waitlist.”
Close to tears, I left a voicemail. This was my third attempt to volunteer at the hospital, and my third time being turned away because they were already full. I needed this volunteer experience for my application, didn’t they understand? In a fit of frustration, I emailed my advisor, who suggested looking around at hospices and nursing homes. I found the closest assisted living community and filled out an application, thinking it would be a temporary position until I could get into the hospital. A year and a half later, I’m still volunteering there and loving every minute of it.
Assisted living communities seem to be overlooked volunteer opportunities around campus. Many of my fellow pre-health students have a “Hospital or Bust” attitude, believing that once they are turned away from the hospital they have no choice but to wait for the next round of interviews. This is not the case, and volunteering at my local assisted living community has been one of the most valuable experiences of my pre-health education.
I have had several positive experiences in the community that have reinforced my belief that volunteering in such a place is a valuable asset to a pre-professional education. First, I have been able to build relationships with several of the residents. I love to see the smiles on the residents’ faces when I walk in the door. They love to tell stories about the “old country” or their times in the military during World War II. Many of the residents have few remaining family members, and do not receive visitors often. Volunteers help make the days more interesting and give the residents someone to talk to. The residents truly appreciate all the time volunteers spend with them.
Another plus for this type of volunteering is ability to customize the experience. From the day I walked in for orientation, I have never been assigned a specific job in the community. I have a 2-hour chunk of time every Thursday in which I do whatever seems necessary at the time. If the residents seem bored, I set up a game. If fresh flowers arrived, I organize a flower-arranging group. If the residents seem content reading the daily paper, I offer them fresh coffee and fruit. Every day is different, which keeps the experience interesting.
Volunteering has also given me several leadership opportunities. This past year, I helped organize the Fourth of July carnival and Halloween trick-or-treating. One of my favorite activities is to lead games, and the residents seem to love it. Leading these games and organizing celebrations have helped to improve my public speaking skills and confidence in front of others, which was an added benefit during my interviews.
Although the experience has been mostly positive, there are some negative aspects to volunteering in the community. Unfortunately, because most of the residents are elderly, death occurs fairly often. Watching people that I have formed relationships with decline every week is tough. A few weeks ago, I arrived at the assisted living community only to find one of my favorite resident’s room being cleaned out and her memorial service on the daily schedule. It is difficult to say goodbye, even if it is a natural part of being human. As a volunteer, I have to be strong for the residents as they see their friends fading, even if I am having a hard time with it as well.
Because the residents are almost exclusively elderly, there is somewhat less diversity in the patient population. During one of my interviews for pharmacy school, the interviewer specifically mentioned the fact that I volunteered with only the elderly, and asked what experience I have with other age groups. A wise student would be prepared to discuss a variety of life experiences to overcome any perceived issues with the lack of diversity this opportunity affords.
Overall, volunteering in an assisted living community has been a positive experience. The hands-on experience has been priceless. There are still days when I hear about my friends’ experiences at the hospital and wish that I could have been there, but I am happy where I ended up. I would recommend this experience to all my fellow pre-health students, and even those who are simply looking to make a difference in the community. While the lack of diversity in the types of patients may be limiting, volunteering in a assisted living community is unique when compared to the large amount of students volunteering in the hospital.
So if you are turned down by the hospital like me or simply want a different perspective on health care, check out your local assisted living communities – you might just find a fun way to stand out on your professional school application.