Published March 15, 2021
Dressed in a medical gown, gloves, an N95 mask, goggles and a face shield, Abdulelah Ahmed is prepared to administer COVID tests at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences as part of UB’s surveillance testing initiative.
And in doing so, Ahmed, a senior biomedical sciences major, puts himself and his family at risk of contracting COVID-19 every week. Although he understands the risk, he also understands the importance of volunteerism, especially during a pandemic.
“It was intimidating at first,” he says. “But once you're inside the process and you get to do it several times and keep an open mind to everything that you go through, it really broadens your perspective, and you find fulfillment in doing it.”
Ahmed is one of the many students enrolled in COM499, a class that gives students the opportunity to earn academic credit and a digital badge from the Experiential Learning Network while also volunteering in communities across the country.
The course loads and work schedules many students carry make it hard for them to find time to volunteer. Ahmed lives at home with 14 family members, attends school full time and works as a nurse assistant at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo.
“I was really nervous about coming home and bringing COVID to the family,” he says. “There are some devastating effects of the virus for some people.”
Students like Ahmed are exactly the type of person the class was designed for: those who demonstrate the willingness to serve their community but also want to stay on track academically.
Vivian Williams, assistant to the chair and director of internships/community service in the Department of Communication, designed the course to give Ahmed and students with similar mindsets the chance to help others without hindering their progress towards graduation. Williams says she’s impressed by Ahmed and his “willingness to serve, learn and lead.”
“He has a genuine empathy for others, which is a fundamental trait for people in the helping professions,” she says. “He thinks deeply and beyond the moment; he's able to foresee ways to help make the testing sites function more smoothly.”
Williams notes that nationwide volunteerism has declined during recent years. She created the community service course to enable students to volunteer while building their communication skills and professionalism. She believes volunteering is vital to students’ overall happiness and success in their professional lives.
“There’s been numerous research studies that have shown that people who volunteer in the community receive all kinds of personal health benefits,” says Williams.
“I think it is especially important for UB students to get involved in the community. Doing so provides them with a broader view of the world we inhabit.”
Williams has a list of more than 1,000 volunteer opportunities. Students in the class volunteer with various organizations, among them the Red Cross; Tulsa Zoo; Seneca Street Community Development Corp.; the Crisis Text-Line; UB’s Environment, Health and Safety department; and the UB Center for Successful Aging.
Bree Barker, a junior psychology major, volunteers her time helping SUNY Potsdam students deal with anxiety during a weekly virtual support group.
“We encourage students to talk about their issues and we incorporate activities and discussions so that they can engage,” says Barker. “Knowing there are people benefiting from it is fulfilling to me.”
Williams’ students learn how important it is to lend a hand during the pandemic. Barker says she’s noticed that many students’ anxiety stems from the pandemic. Volunteers can make a huge difference for people who have nowhere to turn.
“A common theme is the struggles with COVID, and how difficult it has been to adjust,” she says of the students she’s been working with. “By having something connected to their school, something so accessible, it can definitely help them feel that they're not alone.”
On Ahmed’s first day at the Jacobs School, his duties consisted of guiding patients to the right locations and ensuring safety protocols were being met. After completing his first day, he realized he wanted to do more.
“It was literally the same day that I first started,” says Ahmed. “After the day ended, I asked the supervisor if there’s anything more I could do.”
Ahmed saw volunteering as a chance for self-growth while also doing good in his community. Besides helping others, he believes he is helping himself.
“I think people are just not aware of all the benefits you get out of volunteering,” he says. “You get to build your speaking skills and build new relationships, whether it’s friends or professional relationships.”
Ahmed plans to continue volunteering when he leaves UB; Barker has already joined 7cups, an anonymous online therapy support group.
“I think having the class is great,” says Barker. “I wouldn't have had this experience otherwise.”