I Want to Make a Difference: A Guide for Leadership and Service as a College Student

College is a journey for every student. It's easy to get lost in the piles of school work while trying at the same time to retain a social life and some kind of sleep schedule. You lose track of time; at times you might even lose track of who you are. Before you know it, you're a second semester junior freaking out about starting your senior year soon (yes, I'm speaking from experience here). One way to make the most of your time at IU and in Bloomington is to take on leadership and service roles. Won't that overwhelm me even more? You might think so. But speaking from experience, my leadership and service roles throughout my college career have helped me find myself. And, more importantly, they have inspired me and helped me to make a difference to people in my community. These are the roles that will allow you to grow as an individual and help you discover your purpose. 

Why does it matter?

At some point in your college career, whether you directly choose it or not, you will be a leader. It might be in your classes, in a group project, it could be in a club, or a fraternity or sorority. You will be an advocate. You will find something that interests you, that you are passionate about, and you will want to fight for this thing. You will be a volunteer. One of your classes or organizations you are in will require some sort of community service hours. So, even if you go into college thinking you won't take on these roles, you will probably have to. So bear with me, take this blog post for what it's worth, and maybe (hopefully) you will be inspired in some way.

What do you know about leadership and service anyway?

Good question. Glad you asked. Here at IU, I have assumed several positions in leadership and service. Through my Cox Engagement Scholarship, I serve as an Advocate for Community Engagement (ACE) at the Crestmont Boys and Girls Club. It is a role I will hold all four of my college years. In this role, it is my job to serve as a liaison between IU faculty, student service-learners and Crestmont. I attend biweekly meetings with other ACEs in which we delve into deep discussions regarding the state of our community, issues surrounding Bloomington, and how we can increase the involvement of other IU students in our community. It has opened my eyes to many issues the community faces. This role has forever changed my life. 

This weekend, I attended the annual IMPACT Conference with three of my ACE friends. There were students, faculty and administrators from all over the country in attendance. And everyone had one thing in common: a passion for service. During my time at the conference, I took plenty of notes, and I would love to share some of my most important takeaways with you. 

Advocates for Community Engagement at the 2014 IMPACT Conference held at Valparaiso University 

IMPACT Conference Takeaways

To kick off the conference Thursday evening, keynote speaker Amber Smith shared her inspirational story with all attendees. In college, she lost her purpose for a while after being told countless times she would never be able to make a big impact on the world. At age 21, she decided to take a road trip with her best friend. They spray painted "Do Good" on her car and hit the road, traveling from North Carolina all the way to Seattle and inspiring/helping as many people as they could along the way. Eventually, Amber was able to start her own volunteer organization in Raleigh, which she still runs today. Here are the most valuable leadership/service lessons I learned from her:

1. Don't become your cause. It is great to be passionate about something and want to make a difference. But you can't forget to be human and be yourself. You need to learn how to separate yourself from your cause, and this is when you will find success.

2. You CAN make a difference. Amber told us the story of the starfish boy, and it goes like this: Once there was a boy walking along the beach amongst thousands of beached starfish, throwing them back into the ocean one-by-one. A man walked up to him and said to him, "You'll never be able to save them all. It won't make a difference." The boy proceeded to pick up another starfish and throw it back into the ocean. He responded, "It made a difference to that one." Moral of the story: do what you can when you can do it. No matter how small it is, it could change somebody's life, and one person is better than no one. 

How to succeed as a leader

Being a leader in college is scary, especially if it's something you're thrown into freshman year. Here are some tips to make it a little easier.

1. Follow the CAKE model. The CAKE model is something I learned at one of the conferene workshops. 

Confident: Confidence is key in any leadership role, but know the difference between confidence and arrogance. Easier said than done. Yes, I know that it's much easier to talk about being confident as a leader than actually doing so. It's scary and hard to be authentic in your confidence. So, before you are used to your leadership role, you might have to "fake it til you make it." Yes, it is a cheap trick. But once you "act" confident enough, eventually it will become natural. 

Adventurous: Don't be afraid to take risks as a leader. Sometimes you will need to use trial and error, and that's okay. Think outside of the box. 

Knowledgeable: Focus on facts. If you don't know the answer to something, find it or find someone who knows it.

Evaluator: Know your learning outcomes. Ask yourself three simple questions: 1) What do I do well? 2) What should I do less of? 3) What should I do more of?

2. Build your interpersonal skills. Interpersonal skills are good for EVERY college student to have. You will need them in leadership roles as well as job interviews and everyday life. Follow the the SOLGER model to remember interpersonal skills.

Square your shoulders: You should be face-on with the person you are talking to, and your shoulders should be squared with theirs. 

Open posture: You should not be crossing your arms or learning to a side. Keep your arms and hands open.

Lean in: I don't mean get uncomfortably close to someone...but show that you're interested in what they are saying by leaning slightly into the conversation and not away from them.

Gesture freely: Don't close yourself off. Be natural. Gesture as you normally do. Don't play with your hands or clothes.

Eye contact: This is the one we hear time and time again. It's important. Don't look away from someone when talking to them. Show you're interested by keeping eye contact with them. 

Relax: This is probably the one we forget most often, especially when speaking with people we don't often interact with. Just remember to be relaxed and natural, otherwise the conversation won't flow and you'll feel awkward.

3. Use effective facilitation methods. As a leader, you'll probably have to facilitate something at some point. This might be a discussion or a meeting. As an ACE, I have to facilitate reflection sessions for service-learners. During these reflection sessions, the goal is for the service-learners to speak freely, reflect upon their community service, and be able to draw more from their experiences through discussion with one another. I found these tips and tricks very helpful, and hopefully you will too!

What to do:

-ask open-ended questions

-invite everyone to participate

-be an active listener

-manage disagreements (argument is good, but don't let it get violent or hurtful)

-keep group on track

-validate feelings

-encourage "I" statements

-close the conversation (summarize, reflect on what was learned at the end)

What NOT to do:

-push a personal agenda (as a leader and facilitator, you often must listen and guide without pushing your own opinions on people)

-control the group (have control over the group without controlling exactly what is said...you should encourage the members to bring up what's on their mind, as long as it relates to the topic)

-put people on the spot

-force people to speak (encourage them, but don't make them uncomfortable)

-allow one person to dominate the discussion (if the same person keeps speaking up, encourage someone with a differing opinion to chime in)

-avoid tough topics (if there is a tough topic to talk about, it should be addressed)

Always remember: You don't have to be an expert to be a successful facilitator

How to succeed as a volunteer 

Volunteering in the community, especially for the first time, can be difficult and scary. Sometimes people are hesitant to do service because they are afraid of the emotions involved. Service does get emotional at times. Much volunteer work deals with sensitive groups of people in the community. But once you learn how to handle the situations and emotions, service is well worth your time. You will learn professional development skills and might even encounter people who change your life for the better.

If you're looking for somewhere to volunteer, here are some places to explore opportunities:

-places of worship


-community centers



-cultural centers

Tips for starting your volunteer/service experience:

1. Change your mindset. Put on your "hard hat." Be prepared to go to work. 

-Be aware of the focus of the service

-Comprehend that awareness

-Have respect for people. Don't think, "I'm helping you." Think, "How can I help you?"

-Remember human dignity. Everyone deserves to be treated like a human. If you're working in a food pantry, for example, people using that service might lash out at a volunteer for no reason. Even if someone disrespects you, don't disrespect them. Often, people feel ashamed or embarrassed for the help they are receiving because they are in situations they don't want to be in, and this is the reason for lashing out. 

-If you're going to do it, commit to it. Don't just go to fulfill hours. Treat your volunteer experience like a job. Be reliable. Do it well. Mean it.

2. Reflect. After your service experiences, reflect upon them. This is the time where you will make new discoveries and connect the dots.

-Personal reflection: reviewing one's own actions and being critical of such actions

-Group reflection: sharing one's thoughts and experiences to gain knowledge and various persepctives

3. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes service will be hard. If you have questions or are struggling with something at your volunteer site, seek help in other volunteers or staff members. 


In conclusion, leadership and service are two things that almost every college student will face. Don't let these things scare you. Find resources to help you, keep an open mind, and allow these roles to inspire you. Maybe they'll change your life. 





About The Author
Alexea CandrevaJournalism and Communication & Culture major - Class of 2015 - Crown Point, IN

Dog lover. Adventure seeker. DD iced coffee aficionado. Peanut butter addict. Future PR pro.