Ally Osterberg, '22

January 19, 2022
Longtime volunteer researches the impact of volunteering on college students' morality

Ally Osterberg, ’22, started volunteering at a young age. Now the University of Richmond senior is analyzing the value of volunteering. Specifically, she is researching whether civic engagement and volunteering increase college students’ morality.

“I often was ‘voluntold’ or volunteered growing up,” she said, flashing a warm smile. “My father and step-mom are ministers at a Methodist church in Winston-Salem, N.C. In addition to participating in mission trips, I volunteered at the church when it functioned as a homeless shelter during the winter months.”

Eager to continue volunteering in college, she joined the University’s Bonner Scholars Program at the beginning of her sophomore year. The program provides scholarships to students who commit to 10 hours of weekly community engagement. Tapping into her previous volunteer experience, Osterberg initially completed her weekly service at CARITAS, a Richmond-area nonprofit that addresses homelessness.

Community-based-learning classes in her leadership studies and Latin American, Latino, and Iberian studies majors provided her with other opportunities for community engagement, she said. Her Spanish fluency improved through two such experiences: She volunteered as an English-as-a-second-language classroom assistant at a local public high school for her Spanish in the Community class taught by Dr. Karina Vazquez. She tutored a Hispanic third-grader in an after-school program for her leadership studies class Justice and Civil Society taught by Dr. Thad Williamson.

During discussions in her Justice and Civil Society class, Williamson encouraged students to delve into the complexity of the social issues they encountered in the community and to evaluate the efficacy of short-term volunteering in addressing these issues.

“We applied a critical lens to our service,” Osterberg said. “How much difference can we really make in one semester?”

These kinds of experiences and reflective discussions spurred her to research the impact of volunteering on college students’ morality. The Jepson School of Leadership Studies named her its 2021-22 Jablin Student Research Fellow. Thanks to the generosity of Jepson School alumna Adrienne Smith, ’98, the honor comes with $4,000 in funding to support the senior's leadership studies honors research.

Professor of leadership studies and psychology Crystal Hoyt, who introduced Osterberg to the concepts of moral licensing and moral consistency, serves as her faculty mentor.

“Moral licensing is the idea that we act in ways that are inconsistent with what we say we value,” the Jablin Fellow explained. “For example, a person might say they aren’t racist but will not vote for a candidate of color. Moral licensing has several possible explanations, such as someone thinking they have built up enough moral credits to make exceptions.

“By contrast, moral consistency suggests that if we perceive ourselves to be good people, our actions will mimic that. If you see your actions as values you hold, you’re more likely to act with moral consistency. If you see your actions as separate from you—as something you’re doing to achieve a goal, such as fulfilling a volunteer requirement for a class—you’re more likely to act with moral licensing.”

Using these two frameworks, Osterberg will survey 100 Richmond students who volunteer or are engaged otherwise in the community. She will present her findings at the Jepson Research Symposium in April.

After her May graduation, she hopes to pursue an international fellowship or graduate program that combines her interests in leadership and Spanish.

“Nothing is black and white, especially not social issues,” Osterberg said. “The world is a lot more gray than it seems on paper. Richmond has given me the hands-on, tangible experiences to learn and understand that for myself.”

Update: In April, The Jepson School named Osterberg a 2022 Jepson Scholar, awarding her an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, where she will pursue a Master of Science in Latin American Studies.