05 March 2013

Learning Life Lessons From Giving 'Free' Time

The past few months I've been volunteering twice a week at a local non-profit that helps African refugees and immigrants get settled here in the US. I love it! I am surrounded by people from Africa and I have the opportunity to hear such interesting stories. I feel strongly about being a part of improving communities and in the US I believe that means being a part of welcoming newcomers to the community. I love being a part of helping these people get a bit more settled to life in America. I'm so thankful for my Ugandan friends who helped me find my way, that I believe this is one way to pass on my appreciation and to stay connected to the lessons I learned about living as a minority.

Anyway, most days I go into the office and assist clients that are currently looking for jobs. I teach them computer skills and how to fill out online job applications. I explain the general job search process and help them get started. Sometimes I help them with other computer-related questions, such as email. I ask them about where they're from and about their families...I listen to their stories. I celebrate with them when they get a job. Sometimes I research open jobs in the area. Other times I chat with the staff about African issues or my experience in Uganda. It's been a great way to maintain my teaching skills, stay connected in a small way to Africa, and to give some structure to my week.

One day last week when I arrived there weren't any clients to help so the staff asked me to file paperwork. They showed me the files, explained the system, and for three hours I filed. I punched holes in papers, pulled folders, and filed the papers. Not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination. And at one point it occurred to me that I could be annoyed by what I was doing. I could wonder why I gave my time [freely!] to simply file papers. I could feel frustrated that I'm still looking for a job and am spending my time doing this instead.

But I wasn't annoyed. I didn't mind at all, actually. Because one thing I am learning is that volunteering with such a great organization and wonderful people helps give a bit more purpose and perspective to my life right now. And, although I'm giving some of my time away for 'free', I'm learning a lot. I am learning about Minnesota and all the crazy paperwork newcomers to America have to fill out. I am learning to ask good questions and to listen to the immigrants' and refugees' stories. I'm surrounding myself with people who are positive about finding jobs in this economy.

But the most humbling thing I am learning is to let go of my pride at wanting the 'perfect' librarian job. So many of the clients I work with are happy to look for [and get] entry-level, $9/hr, factory jobs. It's made me think a bit more about about my job search. Since moving to Minnesota, I keep saying I just want a job, I just want something to do. But am I really looking for any job or for my 'perfect' job? I realized I was saying I just wanted a job but when it came down to it I didn't want any job, I wanted a librarian job. Which is fine, but I realized I needed to call my job search what it is: a search for a librarian position. The process of helping other people look for jobs is a good reminder that there ARE jobs out there. And that no job is necessarily better than another. Part of living here means paying rent, heat, electricity, etc. and there are times that any job that can pay the bills is good enough. So often I wrap my life purpose into to my job and this experience has reminded me that maybe, just maybe, my purpose is not what I do.

I recently read this article about volunteering and this one. They were encouraging articles reminding me about all the great things about volunteering. And while volunteering may not always be glamorous and it may not open any doors professionally, it is a good opportunity to put some purpose back into my life. It has helped me keep up some of my skills. And most importantly it is an opportunity to remind myself that the world is bigger than me and that in some small way I can stay connected and listen to the stories of African people.


  1. Your gratitude and humility is inspiring. I'm a teacher of English Language Learners, so I understand how being in the presence of newcomers can keep you grounded and amazed. Your willingness to volunteer, reach out to others, and see the blessings in your current situation, will undoubtedly have a positive impact on your future career. Although the skills might not feel "transferable", your heart and mind are learning what they need to for your future successes. Best of luck to you with your job hunt. I'm sure the right doors will open at the perfect time.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts and encouragement! I definitely want to focus on the positive and not get bogged down in the negative...it's a process and I'm trying to learn. Thanks for reading!