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Why counting volunteer hours does not encourage students to give

Winston Churchill once said, "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." From young children helping local charities, to professionals travelling abroad to provide natural disaster relief, Canadians have always been there to volunteer and serve. This is something we should be proud of.

But we could be doing better.

Our education system raises students to regard service as a requirement. Schools put too much effort in patrolling students to ensure they have completed the mandatory service hour requirements, but lack effort in encouraging them to adopt service as an important voluntary part of their lifestyle.

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During my first couple of years in high school, many students, including myself, shared a common belief: get involved and serve, but never forget to record the number of hours you volunteer. Awards and scholarship committees, universities, and employers – they want the numbers. It is the only way to prove your commitment to service. Volunteering in high schools, in most cases, was, and still is, a "logging-your-hours" activity that you end once you have met a certain requirement.

There is nothing wrong with enforcing service as a requirement. The requirement facet, however, is only one side of the coin. Service must also be fostered as a lifestyle. Requirements are designed – at least for the most part – to encourage students to explore new areas of interest. This is important, but it is not enough. When schools end their efforts at the requirement "level," they fail to foster a culture in which students volunteer their time and embrace community service because it is part of becoming a socially responsible citizen. Far too often, in high school and in university, I have witnessed students discontinue service initiatives once they've completed a preset requirement.

Selflessness is the foundation of service. It should not always be about the recognition or padding a sleeker résumé. When students exit school life, the world will not oblige them to document the number of hours they have volunteered.

This is why students should consider getting involved in activities that align with their goals, whether they are academic or occupational in nature. Although this may sound quite obvious, many students fail to recognize the importance of their choices in high school.

In other words, it is worth trying to do something you are passionate about – this takes time and constant trialing. When you know you are willing to genuinely serve without receiving anything in return (which is much rarer than you may think), stick to it – it is a strong indication of passion, and it is something you are likely to stay involved with in the foreseeable future.

An outstanding record of service will inevitably help you succeed, whether you keep track of it or not. Adam Grant, the youngest and top-rated tenured management professor at Wharton and the author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, argues that helping advance other peoples' lives has the ability to make us more productive and successful, rather than serving our own interests.

Grant classifies people into three categories: givers, takers, and matchers. Givers look to help others "by making an introduction or giving advice or providing mentoring or sharing knowledge, without many strings attached. These givers actually prefer to be at the contributing end of an interaction." Takers, on the other hand, "try to get as much as possible from a person, and contribute as little as they can in return, thinking that's the shortest and most direct path to achieving their own goals." Finally, "a matcher is somebody who tries to maintain an even balance of give and take." They keep score of exchanges to ensure fairness. Though it may seem somewhat unintuitive, givers – more so than takers and matchers – build the reputation and social capital for personal and organizational success.

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Try to be at the giving end of an interaction by embracing service as a lifestyle, not a requirement. It might very well be the best investment you will ever make.

Afraj Gill is a student, Chancellor's Scholar, and former senator at Queen's University's School of Business. He is a recipient of the British Columbia Community Achievement Award.

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