June 20, 2008

Volunteering: ups and downs

1. This week I attended a mentor orientation evening at the University of WA medical school. Each 3rd year undergraduate is allocated a volunteer mentor (qualified doctors with at least 5 years' practice experience), and provided there are no problems, the relationship continues through 4th, 5th and 6th year to graduation. The idea is that the student will have access to someone unrelated to the University and the course itself, so the mentor acts as an advisor, role model, or confidante, addressing any non-academic concerns the student might have during the clinical years. The programme was introduced several years ago and seems to have been a great success. Certainly I wish it had been available when I was a student, and I am delighted to be taking part.

2. A month or so after resigning as a volunteer meta-editor at the Open Directory Project, I applied to be an editor at the Best of the Web directory, where an increasing number of past and present ODP editors, editalls, meta-editors and Admins are now working. This group includes many friends of mine, making it an attractive alternative hobby for me, so I specifically requested volunteer status (for various reasons, I did not wish to accept any payment). I am grateful that they were willing to accept me on those terms, because it provides me with a friendly, relaxing and above all enjoyable place to indulge my interest in making good sites more readily accessible to the average web user.


1. I posted a while ago about joining a volunteer adult literacy organisation, Read Write Now!. Since completing the tutor training course a few weeks ago, I've been eagerly waiting to be allocated a student. Last week I learned that I would be helping a woman from a Middle Eastern country, who had come to Australia several years ago with her husband and children. I was told that she had completed the extensive course of free English lessons offered to all migrants on arrival, had then received an additional year's tutoring through Read Write Now!, and that she wished to continue improving her reading and writing skills in English. 
Such a story is common to many of the students using the organisation, but of course it is necessary for them to have reasonable skills in spoken English, because our four day tutor course falls a long way short of the training required to teach English to speakers of other languages.

Last Thursday we met for the first time. Her religion meant I had to visit her at home, where she and one of her daughters made me very welcome. Unfortunately, despite her frequent smiles and nods, my student obviously understood almost no English at all, and could speak only two or three words altogether. Even when I simplified my conversation to single words and gestures, she was unable to tell me how many children she had, her daughter's name, or whether her baby was a boy or a girl. 
To add to my consternation, the daughter politely informed me that her father "wanted" me to help his wife reach the English standard required for citizenship, as she was the only family member still to achieve this.  

I asked the daughter if any of the children or their father spoke English at home, or if they helped their mother to learn English from the TV or printed material? No, that was the "the tutor's job". Did she go out or meet any English-speaking friends? No, she stayed at home "all the time". Had she ever done a course in English? No, she was "not allowed" to go on her own. Was she able to read and write in her own language? No, she had never received any schooling and was illiterate.

Clearly, this situation was way beyond the scope of my limited skills, and I later contacted the organisation in considerable distress at my obvious inability to meet the family's very high expectations. I was relieved but rather sad to be told that the situation was not at all as they had understood it, and in fact the woman did not even meet the entry criteria for our programme. Her family would be advised they need to look elsewhere for the results they want. 

This was an unfortunate start to my tutoring experience, and I have a new understanding of how life is for women like this who are so effectively isolated and constrained by their culture, families and religion, despite their own wishes to join the Australian community. :-(

2. I have posted several times about my experiences as a volunteer in our local bush fire brigade, and it has been very frustrating for me to have a prolonged absence from active participation while recovering from shoulder surgery. However, I have kept up with brigade news, and been disappointed to see indications of the poor management practices, internal politics and clique-formation which can easily undermine the sense of community on which so many volunteer organisations depend. 
I sincerely hope the problems can be acknowledged and resolved, before they create divisions and cause unrest. 

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