In the past, my volunteer activities, mostly in the area of hunger relief, centered on my professional skills as a writer and editor and, to a lesser degree, as a cooking teacher and recipe developer. I always felt on fairly firm ground, confident about what I had to offer. On the first day of drop-in computer lab at the International Institute of New England, I walked into the room and came face-to-face with six long tables of PC laptops. Good grief. As a lifelong Mac user, I felt utterly lost. Where was the power switch? Why was the trackpad in three pieces? I didn't know anything about what the students might expect in computer lab, I speak only English, and I didn't even know my way around a PC. Who could possibly have thought I'd be any good at this?
The two younger volunteers who would work at the lab with me were, thank goodness, super smart, with mad language skills (Arabic, Korean, French, a smattering of Haitian Creole), and comfortable with PCs. We met with our contact before the lab opened, and reviewed the ground rules for how students (all adult learners) could use the computers: reading and sending email, doing homework, watching and listening to videos, working on their resumes, checking job listings. We also reviewed policies relating to privacy and our own roles as lab facilitators and monitors. We shared some resources provided by the teachers, sites that students might want to visit. When the doors opened, seven students arrived. They had come to Boston from Haiti, Somalia, Ethiopia, Nepal and Morocco, and their English literacy ranged from very good to not much beyond "hello". With a deep breath, a smile, and a silent prayer that I wouldn't let everyone down, I opened Google Translate on my phone, and plunged in.