Developing cultural competence through community service placement

Dilma Jayawardena

At Torrens University Australia, we support and celebrate diversity and encourage our students to work respectfully with people across cultures.

In our Bachelor of Community Services course, work placements give students real-world opportunities to develop skills in cultural competence and understand different cultural practices and perspectives.

Dilma Jayawardena has recently completed her Bachelor of Community Services degree. She spoke with us about her fieldwork placement with Community Language Schools SA (CLSSA) and how it aligned with her passion for social inclusion.

“Working with the Community Language Schools SA team was a highlight for me”, says Dilma Jayawardena. I met the most beautiful, funny and humble staff members. Getting to know professionals who understand and appreciate diverse cultures, while learning and communicating in different languages was a valuable experience. Moreover, being involved in real projects and community events offered a sense of accomplishment.

What is cultural competence?

Cultural competence involves understanding, respecting and effectively responding to the diverse needs and characteristics of individuals and communities. Practicing these key traits as a community worker is important to me as it doesn't only help other people around me to understand my culture, but it also helps me to grow within that diverse community.

How did the industry placement contribute to your understanding of diverse cultural backgrounds in the community?

Thanks to the placement with CLSSA, I was able to apply my theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom to authentic, real-world situations. This hands-on experience allowed me to see how concepts in community services and cultural competency translate into practice. I was invited to take on a community needs analysis for CLSSA’s newly proposed Community Language Learning Hub. Through that research, I put into practice some of the knowledge I’d gained through the course, including data collection, data analysis, interpretation and recommendations.

How does cultural competence impact careers in community service?

As an international student who experienced different work cultures in my home country, Sri Lanka, the industry placement at CLSSA made a profound impact on my future career in community services, influencing both my professional development and the effectiveness of my work. Communities are increasingly diverse – CLSSA gave me the chance to work with people from various cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds. This experience has increased my knowledge and understanding of cultural diversity and improved my practical skills and cultural competency. This all helps me to effectively engage with and serve individuals from diverse backgrounds.

What advice do you have for students studying Community Services who are looking to gain experience?

My advice is to start now to secure your placement. Do not wait until the last moment and do not give up if it seems to take a while. Start by understanding your industry and do your research, just as you would when hunting for a job. Community services are mostly offered by not-for-profit organisations. I would encourage you to reach out to every appropriate not-for-profit organisation near you, or even visit their offices to introduce yourself and start making connections. This will increase your networking opportunities and professional relationship building.

I started volunteering with not-for-profit organisations during my first year at university. Through that experience, I made good friends and industry connections who later helped me to find my first placement. The key is to take the lead to find places where you would like to work and then ask your connections if they have any contacts in those places. Making yourself useful and resourceful is very important, so that they can see it’s worthwhile giving you this opportunity. Keeping in touch with your connections, keeping your LinkedIn profile up to date, and reaching out to individuals and relevant organisations through LinkedIn will help too.

Brett Shuttleworth on the importance of placement for Community Service students

Brett Shuttleworth, the Executive Officer, Community Language Schools SA, recognises the importance of fieldwork placements for students. As Brett explains, placements help students to build their confidence and cultural competence skills in real work environments.

The role of practical training and placements for community services

Whether you are a community services student or an industry practitioner who is building your capacity through study, it is important to develop stackable skills for your career path. Beyond the basics of being job-ready and building industry connections, a placement with the Community Language Schools SA (CLSSA) is designed to broaden the horizons of students. We focus on serving the communities of more than 99 community language schools across South Australia.

Here are five qualities of a modern community service practitioner:

  • Creating opportunities for collaboration between members of a community
  • Sharing stories through experiences and heritage
  • Adopting a strengths-based approach to your practice
  • Fostering intercultural relationships
  • Developing the capacity and capabilities of those people you serve.

Over the past several years in South Australia, we have seen a growth in the demand for Community Service practitioners. With an ageing population, the impact of loneliness, and an increase in mental health awareness among adults, it is an important time to be in the Community Services profession.

How important is cultural competency in community services?

The author Stephen R. Covey has a wonderful quote: ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ It is through the lens of others that we develop new tastes, new skills, new words, and sometimes even a new way to navigate life. Demonstrating effective cultural competence is core to being proficient in the five qualities of a modern Community Service practitioner, building your professional capacity is achieved through mastery of new skill sets.

At CLSSA, we serve communities that share their culture and heritage in 49 different languages. They represent a diverse range of countries, religions, beliefs and practices. Cultural competence is a skill set worth mastering. As the peak association for the community language school sector, our role is to develop intercultural experiences through our events, forums, conferences, collaborations, and partnerships that enhance the education programs offered to our 9400-plus students across South Australia. We achieve intercultural experiences by applying cultural competence to situations to enable an environment of success.

How does a placement promote inter-ethnic social and cultural activities?

When exploring a placement opportunity, it is important to engage with organisations that will offer you opportunities to broaden your horizons. At CLSSA this involved the development of events, forums and research activities, which all led to intercultural experiences for our communities. Our most recent placement student, Dilma Jayawardena, was part of a community service delivery team that hosted an engagement space at the 2023 Multicultural Festival, which required the conceptualisation and implementation of a series of activities.

The second significant event that Dilma was part of was the 2023 CLSSA Showcase, which incorporated student artwork, cultural performances, and an awards ceremony for 550 community members. The final element of her placement was conducting a community needs analysis for our recently opened Community Language Learning Hub. The purpose of this research project was to understand the communities that use the Hub and the potential language communities within the three closest councils.

Dilma Jayawardena has now taken up a position as a Community Engagement Mentor at Community Language Schools SA.

Check out our Community Services Course to learn more
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