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Volunteer tutors’ enriching experience

By Fiona West | November 23, 2023
VTS tutor Helen Thompson and student Shruti Shukla have formed a bond that transcends English lessons.

Tuesday 5 December is International Volunteer Day, and if you’d like to join Australia’s millions of volunteers but don’t know where to start, tutoring English to a migrant or refugee takes very little time or effort but offers rich rewards for both the student and volunteer.

We spoke to Helen Thompson and Shruti Shukla about their positive experience with the Volunteer Tutor Scheme (VTS).

When we caught up with them, Helen had been helping Shruti Shukla with her English for just over a year as part of the Adult Migrant English Program’s VTS at Navitas Skilled Futures (NSF). Despite their difference in age, culture and background – or perhaps because of it – they formed a special bond that transcended their weekly one-hour language lesson.

“It’s a real joy,” said Helen, a retired lawyer with a love of the English language.

“It’s a great privilege really to teach anyone and get to know them and about their life. And of course, Shruti’s is just so different from mine, having transplanted herself from another country and having learned a completely different language. And for the hour we are together each week we really enjoy ourselves; it’s always fun.”

Shruti left everything she knew behind when she left India for Australia as a newlywed. Lacking the language skills and confidence to socialise and find work, she initially enrolled in English classes as part of the AMEP at Navitas College. However, when a work experience placement led to full-time job, and after later falling pregnant, Shruti said she was forced to put her language lessons “on pause”.

Shruti returned to the AMEP, via the Volunteer Tutor Scheme, when her daughter was six months old, during Sydney’s COVID lockdown. The VTS enabled Shruti to learn with Helen online through Zoom sessions. When lockdown lifted, even though they met in person – and even met each other’s husbands – they continued tutoring online, as Shruti was balancing motherhood with part-time work and Helen was frequently travelling to Melbourne to care for her own mother.

“That kind of relationship is unique, and can’t be formed with any other person,” Shruti says about her relationship with Helen.

“Helen devotes so much energy in preparing a worksheet for me every week on a topic, and we spend a lot of the time together doing practice … but every now and then I become so talkative and it’s like, okay, the clock is ticking, but I’m just talking about my other stuff,” Shruti said.

“But it is still good that I’m talking in general things apart from the topic we’re discussing because she can see how I’m talking and tell me how to say things correctly. No one else can really do this for me.”

Helen said the conversations during tutoring were initially about childcare and motherhood but now were often about work, and workplace dynamics and challenges. “And we seem to talk a lot about food and what [Shruti] is cooking,” she laughed. “But that’s fine. Apart from doing the exercises, the most useful way to get somebody speaking a language is to be talking about the stuff they need to do every day.”

Shruti said she really valued her relationship with Helen, which had helped her learn more about the Australian workplace and culture, as well as English and grammar. While many VTS students start with no or low-level English, Shruti was high-level, and she was matched with Helen accordingly.

“The spectrum of my friendship in Australia is very limited, it’s not very huge. And then, you know, having a person with that much experience, from that generation, who is Australian born – that kind of relationship is unique, and can’t be formed with any other person,” she said.

“We talk about my work life and her work, about her personal life growing up in Australia, and me growing up back in India.

“So, those cross-cultural things actually have given me meaning to understand things about Australia and Australian people.”

Helen said despite her experience teaching students at uni and mentoring and training young lawyers, she was initially apprehensive about becoming a volunteer tutor. But after the basic introductory training at NSF and finding access to “a vast amount of useful resources, worksheets, exercises and explanations”, it was “surprisingly easy”.

“It’s not demanding; it’s one hour a week and about half an hour of preparation,” Helen said. 

“It’s really interesting and I love the thought that I’m helping somebody learn something. Just by happenstance, we are very different generationally, as well as culturally, and … you don’t so often get to make a good close connection with someone who’s quite different to you. I think it’s been good for both of us.”

The VTS is usually face-to-face at home or a convenient public place. No prior experience is required and full training and support is given.

The VTS is part of the AMEP, funded by the Australian Government, Department of Home Affairs. Volunteers commit to one hour of tutoring per week, usually face-to-face at home or a convenient public place. No prior experience is required and full training and support is given.

Navitas Skilled Futures VTS coordinator Marcella Aguilar said that while the volunteer tutor’s primary purpose was to help students with English, they often had a much broader role of providing friendship, cultural information and assistance with their students’ everyday needs.

“It’s an opportunity to engage with members of your local community who are new arrivals and assist them in the settling process by providing individualised language support,” she said.

“It is hugely rewarding as tutors really do make a difference and have a lasting impact on someone’s life … and they also get to learn about a new culture themselves.”

International Volunteer Day is held on 5 December every year to raise awareness of the important role volunteers play in responding to challenges facing the world. This year’s theme is “If Everyone Did” because, according to Volunteering Australia, “If everyone volunteered the world would be a better place”.

For more information about the VTS or AMEP see

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