Why Involvement Shouldn’t Be Optional for You!

By Stephanie Schofield, Peer Research Ambassador

Student Research Blog. Why Involvement Shouldn't Be Optional for You! By PRA Stephanie.The minute we step into college, there is an aura of both stress and also of relief. The stress, for many, comes from this daunting, new academic environment we are exposed to. The relief, on the other hand, is from knowing we’ve finally made it. We all fought so hard to get here, many of us spent our high school years trying to earn good grades and also get heavily involved in extracurricular activities to boost our applicant profile. Now that you’re here, extracurriculars don’t matter anymore, right?

Well, not necessarily! Of course it can depend on the major, but many of us here are either pursuing a job after college or graduate school, like myself. In my last blog, I mentioned my own example of taking a gap year to gain more experience before entering graduate school. People who know me and/or have reviewed my resume and CV before are reading that last entry and last sentence rolling their eyes. Why on earth would I need to gain more experience when I have so many opportunities and experiences already under my belt? For me, it’s not that I need to, but more so, I want to.

I bring this up because my current motivation to take a gap year to explore my career field more was brought on by getting involved here at UConn. On a more serious note, had I not gotten involved here, if I had only my studies to rely on, my life would be a lot different and incredibly unfulfilling right now. Before any readers have a panic moment thinking “oh no, I’m like that,” let’s talk about five reasons why you should get involved beyond your academics here at UConn. Before we do, what even is this “involvement” term? In my own words, involvement/extracurricular activities are things like clubs, organizations, research, volunteering, etc. Basically, anything that isn’t that super strenuous organic chemistry class you’re taking! So without further ado, here’s five reasons why you should get involved:

Reason #1: Involvement is fun!

Involvement is a great way to fit in activities that you want to participate in! For example, in my freshman year, I joined the UConn Astronomy Association. I absolutely love astronomy and really wanted to be able to pursue this in addition to my studies. In my first year, I got to see the planets from a telescope and took a bunch of exciting field trips. Before the COVID pandemic, I even got to volunteer and give 1st graders a presentation on the phases of the moon. In my second year, I became the secretary of the association and was able to build some leadership experiences as well. It was a wonderful way for me to fit in my hobbies to my academic schedule with little stress. Other friends I know have been involved in anything from a Harry Potter Appreciation Club to a dance club. The opportunities are endless!

Reason #2: Involvement can help you narrow down your career!

Well, involvement is supposed to be fun, so how the heck am I going to relate it back to my career? Well, if you ask me, at least one of your involvement activities should be somewhat directly related to your intended career and still something you enjoy. Citing reasons 3, 4, and 5, being involved can help you be a better applicant for jobs and/or graduate school and can also provide a real-life view of your field. For many of us, our classes consist of “2D” information: textbooks, lecture slides, etc. They sometimes do not demonstrate the “3D” aspect of the material, that is, how it plays out in real life. For example, research in the Mok Lab has allowed me to apply what I’ve learned and seen in a textbook to a real life example, which has been wonderful. Research has allowed me to master some of the concepts I have learned in my classes, which has been vital for me and my career. And what if this type of involvement doesn’t even slightly excite you? Well, maybe this is a sign that you should think about other career options. I know no one likes hearing this, but let’s also think about it this way. You are paying SO much money to be here, why not multitask and explore career options now? You could potentially save yourself the trouble of having to return to school (and pay loads more money) later. There are SO many applications for this reason, but it is, nonetheless, super important.

Reason #3: Involvement can help make you a better job or graduate school applicant!

In my view, as a senior graduating this semester, the idea that you can exit college with nothing but a degree and still be a great applicant is often no longer true. As I skim job descriptions, especially in the research realm, I see so many preferred qualifications and skills they desire from applicants. We all have to make a start somewhere. How on earth are you going to get a job preferring a candidate who knows how to extract DNA when you’ve never done it before? Well, what if you could get that experience before you graduate? Even beyond that, regardless of what you do next, transferable skills will be present in every opportunity you pursue. These transferable skills are encompassed by so many things such as communication skills, the ability to think critically, and the ability to work well in a team; these are ALL things that will make you a better candidate for graduate school and/or a job. Bringing this example to graduate school and post-undergraduate education, many of you reading this entry may be pre-med, and I personally am pursuing a career in genetic counseling. As mentioned in my blog from last semester, many of these health-based programs are HIGHLY competitive, with medical schools, dental schools, and genetic counseling programs being notorious for their under 20% acceptance rates. These programs are looking for more than just grades, and even further than that, they often look for more than the average applicant. For example, as a pre-genetic counseling student, I am required to volunteer as a crisis counselor as a prerequisite for many programs. This past summer, I decided to take this extracurricular to another level, working as a paraprofessional for the summer where I aided in counseling students. After graduating, I’d even like to become a gender-based violence crisis counselor, as I want to gain a well-rounded view of counseling prior to applying for graduate school. Even looking at my research, I work with bacteria, which on the surface has nothing to do with genetic counseling. However, my work focuses on clinical aspects to aid in the overarching global issue of antibiotic treatment failure. These experiences, though not the “cookie-cutter” image of what a typical genetic counseling applicant would look like, give me unique transferable skills and help to make my application more well rounded. I’ve once even heard from an admissions counselor that programs like to see somewhat “off-topic” experiences because they show that you (1) have a backup plan and (2) have explored other options and those led you to be 100% sure that you want to pursue that particular career. In a pool full of hundreds of applicants and only 7 or 8 seats available, admissions committees want to be 1,000% sure you’re dedicated to the program and the eventual career. Let’s bring this example a step even further. In the fall, I applied for the US Student Fulbright Program, one of the most prestigious and competitive programs the US has to offer. Had I not gotten involved in BOTH research and other clubs/organizations, I would have never made it to become a semi-finalist for the program. My involvement is the sole reason I even have a shot at spending my gap year in another country with funding! Needless to say, involvement is an amazing way to spiffy up that application all while opening a multitude of doors for you!

Reason #4: Involvement can help you better manage your time!

Getting involved takes a lot of time and work, but I promise you, as you’ve read, it is SO worth it. But with the time involvement takes out of your schedule, comes learning to better manage your time… not just in the context of school. Let’s again take myself as an example. This semester, I am off campus 4 times a week. I am involved in my research lab at UConn Health, but I also wanted to be able to fit in a genetic counseling related activity. So, every Monday, I set aside time to visit a clinic and shadow. But even after that, I really need to make sure that I have time to do homework and study! So, I end up only doing a half day at this clinic and coming back to school afterwards to do my work. I am SUPER busy, but it has been a blessing in the sense that it has forced me to become more efficient in my own schedule. Getting involved can actually make you more productive, as we’ll discuss in the next reason, because it forces you to plan out your days.

Reason #5: Involvement can help prevent burnout and stress*!

The asterisk here is that while involvement can help your mental health, make sure you don’t overcommit! I will refer you to my Spring 2022 PRA blog to see just how (not) wonderfully overcommitting worked out for me in my Fall 2021 semester.

Let’s circle back to reason #1: involvement is fun! I mentioned that getting involved in the UConn Astronomy Association was a great way for me to fit in a hobby of mine. We’re all so stressed out with school, who has time for that, right? No, not right! It has been proven all over the world that balance helps with productivity and managing stress. You NEED balance. In my freshman year, I used to sit in the library all day every day and it was absolutely draining. Habits like this that were heavily unbalanced led me to become more anxious and depressed in the long run. Studying non-stop actually wreaked havoc on my grades instead of helping them. Your mind is always fresher when you give it a break every once in awhile. It’s rare to find someone who can look at a difficult biochemistry problem all day without feeling exhausted.

Even as I write this blog, I am moving back and forth between this text and writing my thesis. It is almost impossible for anyone to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. For me, I burn out that way and so I always try to have a diverse set of things to do. I will try my very best to break up work with a fun event at least once or twice a week, which often includes an extracurricular activity. Currently, I am enjoying advocacy in my spare time, so sometimes I break up my work by creating a fun infographic I can use for the advocacy organization I am a part of.

Now, I understand that all of this seems super scary. I know from experience how incredibly tempting it can be to come back from class and spend all night in bed, and I’m not at all saying that you need to give this up, but consider starting small. Choose one extracurricular activity that you think you might enjoy, whether research, a club, etc, and pick one day of the week where you’d be willing to commit some time for this. Consider the five reasons I listed above. Is this activity fun? Is it helping you narrow down your career interests? If it fits at least 2 of 5 of these reasons, you should consider keeping it in your schedule!

I know each and every one of you here have made such incredible sacrifices to be here at UConn, so make the most of it. I like to tell people that I “didn’t stop until I had made my mark,” so no matter how big or small, don’t be afraid to get involved. You never know where it might lead you or how it might change your life for the better!

Stephanie is a senior majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and minoring in Psychological Sciences. Click here to learn more about Stephanie.