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Recently, I wrapped up my marketing internship with Mercantile Bank. It was a fruitful time. Not only did the internship encompass daily marketing duties, but the program built in multiple opportunities focused on interns’ professional growth. We had access to webinars, were encouraged to do job shadows throughout the company, and had access to personal finance workshops geared towards our age group. From the beginning they made it clear that we weren’t just here to do busy work – what we did was going to be valued and of great use to the bank. And beyond that, they wanted to provide extra value to us.
As I was writing thank you notes to the staff, I couldn’t help thinking about the kind of mindset that had created such a wonderful opportunity for us interns: the bank was concerned with ‘giving back’ to its community.
To Give Back
Giving back — I’ve heard it many times. Tagged onto the end of speeches. Memorials. Eulogies. It always seems like an ending. Not a beginning. I haven’t framed it into my life yet. Subconsciously I thought I’d start “giving back” when I had more experience. But what does that even mean? I had more experience now than I did four years ago, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
During my internship, one of the younger interns asked if she could job shadow me. Dumbfounded, I wondered: what could I even offer? Four-going-on-five years at Calvin spent crafting my design skills, learning about myself, and figuring out my place in the world. Yet somehow it was hard to get outside of my own head to see what I could offer.
It makes me think now, that to meaningfully give back to your community, you kind of have to be outward looking. Inwardly focused, you might miss the immense value your story might have to someone else.
But let’s think about it: She is just entering her college journey; I’m just finishing mine. There’s a reason older students make great orientation leaders in college programs. There were pieces of my experience this younger intern valued — things I didn’t realize were useful. I can’t look at myself and always determine what’s valuable to different people. But showing up and being willing to chat was enough.
You Can’t Measure Impact
Other doubts plague me when I consider trying to be a person who “gives back.” I found company for my doubts in Michelle Kuo’s book Reading with Patrick. Her internal monologues echo sentiments I have. Is the work she does with marginalized students truly worth it or is she just doing it for her own self-righteousness? Is it self-sacrificial if she is getting more out of it than they are? Throughout the book, she’s troubled by the thought of her own selfish motives – will they jump out at her, crystal clear, and lay waste to any delusions of meaningful impact?
I can relate. A nagging guilt while tending to your personal, plentiful life, having witnessed the scarcity of others. A persistent cynicism in doing good work, wondering if you’re doing enough good in the right ways.
I think this is important to me because you can’t measure the depth of your own impact. For example, a long-term co-worker moved to a new opportunity last week. I think imagining him leaving was one thing, but his true impact will become poignantly clear in the following weeks, as his absence settles in.
I think of the hardworking people who created such an integrated, bountiful experience for the interns, and how grateful we were at every turn.
You can’t measure the depth of your own impact, but I sure wish I could. I want to know I’m going to be useful before I step forward. I want to know I have worthwhile things to say before I conduct a job shadow. I want to feel like I have something to give, but I’m learning sometimes you don’t know what that is even while you’re pouring into people.
Advice to a Future Me
Reflecting on the people in my life who have dedicated their time to “give back”, there’s a few things I want to tell my future self now. I’m entering my senior year of college. Ten years down the road I’ll have (I hope) even more valuable experience. I’ll want to remember what to do with it, and how to make my experience accessible. So, notes to a future Olivia, who may want to give back to her community in meaningful ways.
1. Learn from people. Sometimes I meet people, and their knowledge on a subject I love will just fill me with joy. It nags me endlessly that they are a great resource, yet I can’t think up a great question in that moment. It always takes me a hot minute to figure out how someone’s expertise might fit into my life.
I did this at my internship. After meeting the mortgage team – an engaging, fun group of people, I felt pressured to come up with a relevant question. Two days later, I finally crafted a three paragraph email asking for connections between a mortgage team and local efforts to create affordable housing.
To my surprise, this led to a half an hour phone call where I learned a lot about the moving pieces and entities involved in addressing an affordable housing shortage. Ever walk away from a conversation kind of glowing because you connected with someone, and really learned something?
Most conversations that begin with a thoughtful question, I walk away glowing. So, future Olivia, take note: it’s okay to take time to craft a good question. Ask the right person and it will be worth it.
2. Believe you have something to offer. You might not even know what you are offering until you make a connection. And that’s okay. Right now, I’m learning how to give a neat elevator pitch about how Olivia Mason is the right person to hire. But there are other things I’m the right person for that I won’t even realize until I’m there. Never assume you won’t be helpful in some way, somewhere.
3. Enrich yourself. Pursue the kinds of things that make you a valuable resource. Obviously, this is a rather subjective statement. In my case (ever the introvert) I’d tell myself, instead of binging a TV show, read a book. You might recommend that book to someone, or be convicted about a lifestyle choice.
4. Learn a new skill. Ask questions and be present to people around you. Be curious about stories, histories, narratives, and research them. You never know what information will spill over into others’ lives. I think naturally humans do navigate towards life-enriching experiences, but as an introvert I know I always need the extra push here and there.
5. Have a mindset that is less possessive of your resources. Yes, set clear boundaries with time, but place higher value on time spent building relationships, experiencing new things, and learning new things. As much as I love disappearing into busy work, it’s conversations and collaborative things that really give me the chance to connect. And ultimately, it allows me to be accessible. Yes, inquisitive people will get answers because they’re asking questions. But also, be in spaces where people can ask you those questions.
I’m hoping these thoughts might be useful. I think I’ve heard the words “giving back” so many times throughout so many circumstances that they’re rather cliché. But after being the grateful recipient of thoughtful spaces like Calvin University and Mercantile Bank, curated by people intentionally giving back, I know I want to do the same. I want to grow with an eye on how I can give back.