My Volunteer Story: Florence Cao

Picture Courtesy Olivia Adamczyk

Florence is testament to the belief that it’s never too early in life to start volunteering. Her experience started in Grade 7 as a DigiGirl (as the name suggests, that school program encouraged girls to pursue a career in technology).

Her volunteering path proved to be pretty intensive right through secondary school until the second last year at University of Toronto at Mississauga (UTM). She dabbled in the Athletics Council, Carabram, Turner Fenton’s School’s Culture Fest, the Mathematical and Computational Sciences Society, and the AccessiBility Resource Centre Mentorship Program, to name but a few associations.

Notable accomplishments among the groups listed above included facilitation of intramurals that allowed dozens of students to join in healthy, friendly competition, initiated and overseen as a member of the Athletics Council, and later as a volunteer with Carabram, Florence introduced the Myanmar culture to Brampton residents.

Volunteering proved to be such a help to Florence in terms of pursuit of a career in computer science that in the summer of 2017, before her final year at UTM, she became involved in the university’s ‘Hack Lab’, as a volunteer supervising that facility. The ‘Hack Lab’ proved to be a fantastic feature of the Computer Science Department, a room where students could work on side projects. She characterizes such involvement as an opportunity to give back to a department that gave her so much.

With 25 volunteers under her wing, Florence in a very short time created huge impact that positively affected students in the department, the ‘Hack Lab’ volunteers, and above all herself. All using the lab were able to develop both technical and transferable skills relevant to the work field. One outstanding volunteer, Arsala Bangash, saw the ‘Hack Lab’ as an indicator of success in school, “I made sure I was doing very well in school and part of my strategy to doing well was teaching others. It’s the best example of a win-win scenario, because you’re getting your stuff solidified, and they’re learning something.”

And although students and Faculty complimented Florence for her significant contribution and leadership, she felt that she hadn’t done anything extraordinary. What was, and remains, important to her is the personal joy in seeing how happy everyone was in the ‘Hack Lab’, and the obvious impact she had on the community.

She confesses that volunteering hadn’t always been a positive experience prior to the ‘Hack Lab’. The hours. Occasionally ‘difficult’ people. A less than ideal commute. Over her school years, the prospect of one important outcome kept Florence committed: her impact on the communities that she cares about.

And for Florence, definition of “community” is important, “Your community does not have to be your neighbourhood or even your country. Your community can be defined by location, interests, or shared objectives, including those which you inherited at birth or those which you actively choose to participate in.” It’s important, because community is important to Florence, and in fact to all volunteers.

And she leaves us with a challenge, “Look at the communities that are important to you and determine what they need.”

(Condensed from a profile originally edited by Jeremy Ocenar)