Exchange Matters / September 27, 2021

Hop On! Virtual Bus Adventures Across Five Languages

By Bonnie Beard and Jennifer Strauss, International Visitor Liaisons, and Brittany Lynk, Technology Subject Matter Expert (Tech SME)

Innovate, iterate, prototype… repeat. This “design thinking” model has been our mantra since the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) went virtual. With this year’s virtual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report Heroes, we had a new challenge!

To set the stage: over the course of eight weeks, we welcomed eight Heroes who spoke five primary languages to 13 meetings. Their time zones spanned 14 hours. Behind the scenes were three Liaisons, four Administrative Interpreters, and 12 Simultaneous Interpreters. On the programming team were representatives from three U.S. Department of State offices (Office of International Visitors, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and Office of Language Services), one National Program Agency (Meridian International Center), two Community-Based Members (Global Minnesota and Global Ties Miami), and one Tech SME (BLynk Creations & Consulting). It was a herculean task, executed with the grace of swans on water—with each of us paddling furiously underneath.

Now that the program is in our rear-view mirror, we can look at the impressive outcome of the role the virtual bus played in this special initiative on the Heroes, program teams, and ourselves. Below are some of the prototypes tested and lessons learned.

Nourishing Connections on the “Virtual Bus”

One of the many joys of traveling with IVLP visitors is getting to know them. There are many moments of connections, but none quite as valuable as the candid “in between” moments: waiting at the airport, over after-hours refreshments, and of course, on the bus!

In working with visitors during in-person programs, many of us Liaisons are guided by John Dewey’s theory of learning, which is that learning is socially constructed—effective learning requires the participant to be active and engaged in the process. With this foundation, Liaisons create myriad opportunities for visitors to engage, learn, and grow, while going to meetings, home hospitality, and cultural events.

This past year has found us pondering ways to create those connections in the virtual realm. Enter the “virtual bus” as a private space for intimate conversation and reflection where a community can grow.

The ultimate goal of a virtual bus is to create a safe and comfortable space for visitors to become acquainted beyond the confines of professional meetings. With formality broken down, the added value to the program often means better questions in meetings, a stronger pull to collaborate with one another and with interlocutors, and simply great learning and connections.

Working across five languages with this year’s TIP Report Heroes, we had an even larger challenge in creating this safe and comfortable space. The ease and typical give-and-take of any conversation required multiple teams of people to quickly switch language channels to ensure interpreted responses. In addition, both participants and the program teams battled bandwidth issues, storm-related power outages, time zones requiring meetings past midnight or before dawn, and other normal life/work events that created programming conflicts. So with all this in mind, here are the virtual bus “rides” we tested with the Heroes and best practices and learnings that emerged.


Virtual Bus “Rides” Traveled with the Heroes

  • One-on-ones/twos (2 sessions, each with 2 breakouts of 15 minutes)— Heroes wanted more!
  • Prompt: General meeting reflections and thoughts; how it applies to Heroes’ work
  • Prompt: Ways in which, given the intensity of the work, our Heroes recharge
  • Case study: Shared by our Japanese Hero, followed by input and action suggestions from other Heroes
  • Show and Tell: Share photos of (1) a person who inspires you, and (2) a place that brings you joy/calm


Best Practices and Learnings from our 5-Language Virtual Bus

1. Slow it down! While we all know only one person should speak at a time, here, only one person could! Talking over or interrupting threw off interpreters as language channels switched. It took a while for us all to learn to measure comments and utterances—and even evaluate them for their value—before speaking.

2. Don’t leave anyone behind! Because the team was so large and divided by language and task, it didn’t take much to leave someone out. For example, as Liaisons were busy planning how to “drive” the bus, we quickly realized Administrative (Admin) Interpreters should be part of the driving team. The Japanese Admin Interpreter commented that she was a bit nervous to host the bus initially, but it was “fun and rewarding for all.” The Spanish Admin Interpreter added, “Driving the virtual bus gave me the opportunity to get an insight into our remarkable Heroes’ lives, and to contribute, in a small way, to these more intimate exchanges.”

3. Seating on the bus! It became clear early on that individual Heroes wanted to connect with other Heroes one-on-one. We needed a game plan: Which issues were of interest to which Heroes? Our Kazakh Hero wanted to learn more about data collection from our Spanish Hero. Our British Hero, based in Albania, wanted to know about migrant worker requirements from our Qatar Hero. Once people were somewhat paired, breakout rooms were designed with the accompanying interpretation teams and Liaison/Admin Interpreter.

For the Tech SME, considering the technical aspects of one-on-ones in Zoom required jigsaw-puzzle thinking: since breakout rooms only support consecutive interpretation, pairings were limited to speakers of English and one other language. For pairing across two languages that were not English, the Heroes could use the main room with simultaneous interpretation—but with only one main room, all pairings had to be made thoughtfully. Last minute “no shows” by any visitor instantly upended the carefully crafted room arrangements and required reconfiguration on the fly.

4. Who’s driving? Often in-person and virtual project participants share a common language, and Liaisons can be quite sure the ride is a success when we are able to lay a foundation that the visitors build on, thus driving the conversation. Definitely not so in this case! We learned there needed to be a designated driver to control the flow of conversation as it funneled through the gifted interpreters. The French Admin interpreter commented, “Leading the bus was a bit nerve-racking because I didn’t know how responsive the participants would be. Once I had the right question or conversation starter, the conversation flowed, and the virtual bus became a wonderful experience for all.”

All the while, behind the scenes were the skillful maneuverings of the Tech SME and the Language Services Tech Expert (or “Mission Control,” as he was quickly dubbed). Getting interpreters all working from a different “vehicle” (Interprefy) in sync with participants, Liaisons and Admin Interpreters on Zoom, along with the Tech SME getting everyone into the correct “sidecar” (breakout room)… well… let’s just say, it was quite a show!

5. Did we mention coordination? Everything—EVERYTHING was put in writing and posted to the appropriate channels, which included WhatsApp (several overlapping groups), Canvas, and email.

6. Grab the oxygen mask! This really can’t be stated strongly enough: Breathe! Slowly fill your lungs and keep smiling, even when visitors are put in the wrong room, the speaker loses connectivity, one interpreter needs to sub spontaneously for a frozen colleague, or the virtual space fills with dreaded silence—because it will and does all happen! And the results are inspiring and gratifying. Two of the French-speaking Heroes summed it up best. The Central African Republic Hero said, “The virtual bus was an extraordinary experience. The informal conversations were very rich even though they were too short.” Her colleague from Gabon noted, “I found the bus interesting because it allowed me to know my fellow colleagues better. [I]t was a moment for us to develop good relationships and set up long-term conversations.”


The Virtual Bus from our Rear-View Mirror

When visitors meet each other only through virtual appointments, that cross-pollination of ideas that we are so privileged to watch unfold over the course of in-person programs can become collateral damage to the use of technology. The virtual bus allows us to attempt to replicate what is one of the best parts of an IVLP—the interpersonal connections among and between participants and all partners involved (speakers, OIV/NPA/CBM hosts, and interpreting and liaison colleagues).

As our Mexican Hero wrote, “The idea of the virtual bus… was a way to break the ice and know more about the lives of each of the Heroes and Heroines. It allowed us to… [generate ideas] to continue doing this great work against human trafficking.” The Hero from Kazakhstan noted, “Despite the fact that all participants speak different languages, the ideas and commitment to combating human trafficking are the same for everyone, which confirms the importance of creating of our strong network.”

The success of this particular virtual bus is summed up by Julia Wygant of the U.S. Department of State: “The virtual bus… was an essential part of the virtual IVLP for the TIP Heroes Initiative… [It] allowed our Heroes to form unique bonds that went beyond professional content… [and] added substantial value to the overall project by allowing [them] to connect more candidly outside of professional meetings.”

For this project and for all virtual projects, the virtual bus offers an invaluable benefit that is well worth the time and creative investment required to make it happen. The virtual bus has proven to be one of the glowing successes of virtual programming for both visitors and Liaisons.


Special thanks goes to:

Office of International Visitors: Jordan Lachance, Oksana Jensen, Julia Wygant

Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons: Ashley Hernandez, Jennifer Ho

Office of Language Services: Cyril Flerov for technical moderation, Assigning Officers

Meridian International Center: Rachel Craddolph, Katie Hudak, and Claire Schafer

Community-Based Members: Global Minnesota and Global Ties Miami

Simultaneous Interpreters: Arabic: Rania Hijazeen, Danyal Najmi, Mustafa Sayid | French: Rebecca Clingman, Gerard Mare, Guerda Romain-Chatelain | Japanese: Yohko Mitchell, Shiori Okazaki, Miwako Shimizu | Spanish: Heidi Cazes, Nancy Hand, Luz McClellan

Administrative Interpreters: Heba Bachir, Finayon Simpson, Jennifer Soto, Anna Tung

Liaisons: Todd Rose, Jennifer Strauss, Bonnie Beard

Tech SME: Brittany Lynk, BLynk Creations & Consulting