Guest Post: How to Get Started in Intercultural Training as a Volunteer

Today’s post is by guest blogger Lindsay McMahon of English and Culture.

Getting started as an intercultural trainer or consultant can be overwhelming! How do you start to build a name for yourself in the field? How can you get a sense of what training is all about outside of your courses or beyond what you have heard from other consultants?

I have been chasing down answers to some of these questions lately. I have realized that one of the best ways to get started as a trainer or consultant is to get out there and offer your services as a volunteer. In today’s article, we will talk about why you should start by volunteering and how to make it happen.

Why Volunteer?

  • Get experience in a low-pressure environment:  We all need to practice. As trainers and coaches, we are a work in progress. Serving as a volunteer intercultural consultant or trainer is a great way to gain confidence and experience in a low-risk situation where it’s ok to make a mistake.
  • Find out who you like to work with: Learn something about yourself! Perhaps you will volunteer in a university and you will realize that you don’t like working with international graduate students and that maybe working with expatriate families would suit you more. Volunteering is a great way to figure that out.
  • Gain contacts: Contacts are important in this field. By volunteering and carrying out a few consulting projects with one organization, word of mouth might help you land that paid gig that you are working toward.
  • Bring theory into practice: You are up to date on current theories and research in the field but all of that knowledge doesn’t translate into skills unless you put it into practice. Become a learner by doing, not by memorizing and reciting theory. By volunteering, you will find out how to strike a balance between theoretical and practical aspects of intercultural training.
  • Conduct market research: Researching the needs a particular group of people is nothing more than getting to know what keeps them up at night. For example, if you volunteer as a trainer for international families of researchers at a university, through conversations you can find out what is really concerning them about relocating and living in a new country. Look for trends and patterns. See if there is a need that is not currently being addressed by other trainers in the field. Maybe that will become your niche!

Who should you volunteer with?

  • Organizations that “get” intercultural training: While many organizations are realizing the value of intercultural training, a lot still aren’t even aware that we exist or have any idea what we do. Make it easy on yourself by choosing an organization that gets it. Check their website. What are their values? What is the culture of the organization? Would they create a good environment for your learning? Check their calendar of activities and events. Have they ever done any workshops on intercultural issues? How do they define “cultural competence” and “cultural support”?
  • Organizations that you or your contacts are already connected to: If you have already built rapport with an organization through other work, why not ask them if you can do some intercultural training as a volunteer? In addition, if you can get introduced to an organization by a contact, they can let you know whether or not the organization will be open to a volunteer consultant or trainer. You will also have more credibility in approaching the organization because the mutual contact will present you as someone who can be trusted.

How can you make it work?

  • Tie it in with academic work: If you are a graduate student in intercultural communication or intercultural relations, why not make your volunteer project an independent study? This would give you the opportunity to reflect on your experience and analyze it through theories learned in class. It would also give you the backing of your university which provides additional credibility when you approach organizations with your idea.
  • Take time to become a part of the organization: If the group that you will be training has regular meetings and events, be prepared to come in and get to know them before putting together your training. Take this as an opportunity to get to know their values, what’s important to them so that you can use that insight when you build your training plan. Show your commitment to the group by helping out in other ways like cleaning up after weekly meetings.
  • Partner with someone who is already a part of the group: Is there someone in the group that you could work with as a training partner? This person could offer an inside perspective on the needs of the group and could be the bridge between you and the group.
  • Maintain professionalism: Even though you are a volunteer, you should treat these early volunteer projects like paid assignments. Why? The group is taking a chance on you. Make it worth it for them!

Your volunteer work is complete. Now what?

As you finish up your volunteer project, be sure to ask for testimonials from the director and participants to build your portfolio and your online resume on your website and on Linked In. If you are in school, you might also want to find a mentor or a professor with whom you can discuss the process. What went well? What could have been done differently?

Finally, try to stay connected with the organization. Perhaps they have an opportunity for you to continue to offer your expertise and stay connected with participants through a monthly guest blogging column. Or maybe they will invite you in to speak on a topic related to intercultural issues. Once you have put in the work and established the trust, the future possibilities are limitless!

Now get started!

So are you ready to get started? Work hard in your first volunteer position, and you will be well on your way to carving out a niche for yourself as the intercultural expert in your community. Who knows where that first opportunity will lead you?

Check back next week for another guest post about intercultural training by Lindsay!

Lindsay McMahon is the Founder of English and Culture. Her company offers customized English lessons and cultural competence training in Boston and New York City for international professionals. She recently completed a Master’s degree in Intercultural Relations at Lesley University. She would be happy to connect with other Interculturalists to brainstorm new ideas and possibilities in the field! Feel free to reach out.