Service and “volunteerism” is a central part of U.S. culture and the mission of UIC. Many international students, scholars, and employees are inspired to volunteer in their new communities or for issues they are passionate about. However, it is important that you understand the definition of “volunteering” within the immigration context so as not to unknowingly violate your status.
What is volunteering? Heading link
Volunteering is defined as an activity where one performs hours of service for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons without promise or expectation of compensation, monetary or otherwise. Volunteering is prevalent in U.S. culture and individuals of all ages will participate in volunteer experiences that serve all areas of community life.
Volunteering could look like handing out water to runners during the Chicago Marathon, cleaning at an animal shelter, gardening at a neighborhood park, or setting up tables for the local farmer’s market. In all cases, the volunteer receives no compensation for their services (e.g. money, housing, goods, or promise of a job), and typically the activity occurs during a defined period of time and is not ongoing, indefinitely.
The difference between volunteering and unpaid employment Heading link
It is important to understand the distinction between volunteering and unpaid work since visa holders must have authorization to work in the U.S., even if that work is unpaid, like in the case of an internship. Understanding the distinction will help you avoid violating your immigration status and protect you from an employer that may try to take advantage of you.
Your “volunteer position” could be viewed by immigration authorities as unpaid work (which requires authorization) if the employer typically pays someone for the job or tasks you are completing. For example, if your friend’s family owns a restaurant and they ask you to cover a few shifts because they are short on servers, it could be viewed as unpaid work rather than volunteering. Similarly, volunteering could be viewed as work if you are using skills related to your studies and plan to frame the position as work experience on your resume. For example, if you study graphic design and offer to develop branding for a start-up company in the U.S., it could be viewed as unpaid employment if you include that work in your portfolio.
Unauthorized work, even when unpaid, can have significant negative consequences on your immigration status. Note that some immigration statuses come with additional restrictions on outside employment (paid or unpaid); J-1 and H-1B are a couple of common examples. These statuses, and some others, are limited in scope to that of the sponsoring organization. Always contact OIS prior to accepting or participating in an unpaid position to confirm if it might be a violation of your status. For details, please see the appropriate immigration section for your U.S. immigration status.
Finding a volunteer experience Heading link
Volunteering at UIC
For all UIC students, the best place to start when looking for volunteer opportunities is with UIC Student Leadership and Civic Engagement. Undergraduate students may also explore Fraternity and Sorority Life which holds civic engagement as one of their core values.