Studying in Montreal — ranked the best student city in the world — isn’t unusual. For some, though, the journey here is exceptional.
Lana’s life changed dramatically when she had to leave her home in Syria as the civil war became more intense. Along with members of her family, she settled in neighbouring Jordan, where she would remain for three years. A life-changing exodus to Canada and eight months of intense preparation at Concordia later, Lana has just found out that she has been fully accepted into a degree program in Art Education in the Faculty of Fine Arts.
When she touched down in Montreal last September, she was met by a heartwarming sight. A group of supporters were there to welcome her at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.
There are numerous links in the chain of kind gestures that brought Lana here.
The World University Service of Canada pairs young refugees with universities. Lana was identified as a perfect candidate. The cost of her travels, English courses, lodging and tuition have been covered. All this thanks to those willing to give their time and offer funds to support the Syrian Refugee Fund that was set up by Fine Arts in 2016.
As National Volunteer Week (April 23-29) approaches, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the goodwill of everyday people makes our society stronger, kinder and healthier. As Lana’s story illustrates, it’s an activity that requires actors with different skill sets — whether to teach English, to navigate immigration processes, or to fundraise.
In the words of former U.S. president Barack Obama, “Change happens when ordinary people get together, get involved, get engaged.”
Many Canadians have already taken up that call. According to volunteer.ca, each year 12 million of us contribute $14 billion in economic value through our volunteer efforts. The average Canadian gives 154 hours annually.
But where to get started? How do we find a volunteer option that coincides with our passion and our ability to help? Despite the presence of 200 volunteer centres Canada-wide, we lack a centralized online database that would make matching potential volunteers with worthy causes an easy and effective process. A comprehensive system would harness the digital connective power that is characteristic of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Described by Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, this era is one where technology, biology and the physical world will become increasingly seamless. It’s about integration. Time and place are less important.
Let’s return to the example of Lana. Imagine a database where a website designer could use their smartphone to express their task preference — such as the Syrian refugee crisis — and stipulate their expertise. A consolidated database would link volunteer-supplied parameters to the user’s preferences — which millennials and Generation Z have come to expect. It’s a sort of volunteer matchmaking service.
To maximize volunteerism, it is productive to dig a bit deeper into motivation, too. Yes, Lana continued to excel, buoyed by the kindness of strangers, but the volunteers benefitted as well. Research shows that altruism spurs 70 per cent of those who volunteer. A significant chunk, however, seek skill development to improve their job prospects. For some population segments — attention fellow Baby Boomers! — volunteerism is recommended by doctors as a key to healthy aging. It’s a win-win situation.
Within the next decade, those who have reached or exceeded the traditional retirement age of 65 will surpass 20 per cent. This group has steadily closed the Internet-usage gap with younger generations. Nearly 84 per cent of individuals between 45 and 64 are online, which includes mobile devices. A digital, customizable volunteer tool could be a success with Baby Boomers — not just millennials and Generation Z.
Whatever the cause, choosing to volunteer aligns you with a proud tradition of social actors. The change people help effect with their discretionary time does, in many cases, transform lives and our society.
Alan Shepard is the president and vice-chancellor of Concordia University.