During her first training session to become an Olympic volunteer more than a year ago, Ursula Kaminski got a taste for what it will be like to handle difficult situations after the Olympic Games actually begin.
Kaminski, a receptionist in the Oxford College Student Center, will serve along with her husband Leonard as a volunteer in the protocol area at the Olympic equestrian venue in Conyers. She will translate for the German-speaking members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) attending equestrian events. Her husband, a court reporter for the state of Georgia, will translate primarily for German speakers, but also for Russian speakers as needed.
"They gave us a choice of which venue we would like to work," said Kaminski, who lives in the Oxford area. "We chose the equestrian venue because it's only about 15 minutes away from where we live."
The training sessions to become an Olympic volunteer began for Kaminski and her husband in December 1994 at Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport. Kaminski and the other trainees greeted IOC members as their planes arrived in Atlanta, and guided them through baggage claim and then to buses that took them to the Marriott Marquis hotel downtown.
A native of Germany, Kaminski was responsible for translations for any German-speaking IOC members during the course of their trip through the airport and to the hotel. "It was a really interesting experience because we met the Prince of Belgium," she said. "Unfortunately, the airline lost his luggage, but it was found. That's how I got to meet him. On that particular day, I was stationed on the bus from the airport to the hotel, and that's where we had to explain to him what had happened to his luggage and that it would be found."
Following that first training session, Kaminski and her husband have attended two additional sessions, both of which illustrated some of the cultural differences between western countries and other nations that will be represented at the Olympics.
"We had a man from a Middle Eastern country who was being escorted by a female volunteer from baggage claim to the bus," Kaminski recalled. "He was not being very friendly toward her, and she was trying her best to be friendly with him and talk with him. As they were coming up the escalator, he charged toward my husband and told him that he needed to use the restroom. He wasn't about to tell that to a woman. After he used the restroom, he was very friendly."
During another training session at the airport, two IOC members from different parts of Russia got into a heated argument. "It had something to do with politics," Kaminski said, "something to do with Ukraine being independent from Russia. Of course, we can't get involved in situations like that. We were told never to discuss politics with the IOC members. So my husband had to use his Russian and split them up. One went with another volunteer, and my husband took the other one."
Kaminski also recalled how appreciative a Kuwaiti IOC member was of the United States' role in the Persian Gulf War. "He gave all the volunteers gifts," she said. "He told us that if it weren't for the Americans, Kuwait would not be free."
In addition to the training sessions, Kaminski also had to take a language test. "They ask you questions in English, and you answer in your own language," she said. "Then they ask you some specific questions in your language. You also have to do a self-evaluation of how well you speak the language. And they ask if you have any medical experience or knowledge of medical terminology. Of course I have none. Then they evaluate your test and decide where to put you based on that."
Volunteers also have to undergo a security check, she said.
Kaminski was born in the small city of Eisenberg in the former East Germany. Because her father was an active and vocal opponent of communism, the family had to flee the country when Kaminski was 12. "We had to leave behind our dog and our house with everything in it," she said. "That was traumatic. But we adapted and became Americanized in no time."
The family settled in Pennsylvania, where Kaminski met her future husband. She took advantage of an opportunity to do some translating early in her marriage when her husband was serving in the military and stationed near Frankfurt, Germany, and she worked for the European Exchange System. After their time in Germany, the Kaminskis were stationed in Columbus, Ga., and eventually settled in Atlanta after Leonard Kaminski retired from the military.
Kaminski also got a chance to do some translating when she first came to Oxford 19 years ago. During her first two years, she spent part of her time doing German translation for a former Oxford religion professor and worked as a secretary in Residence Life the other half of the time. She eventually joined the Residence Life staff full time. Two years ago, a part-time receptionist job opened in the Student Center, and Kaminski decided to apply. She now works only in the afternoons during the academic year, which enables her to spend time with her new grandchild.
Although her summer break won't be as peaceful as usual, Kaminski welcomes the experience that Olympic volunteering presents. "Our first training at the equestrian venue will be on June 15 so that we can become familiar with the park," she said. "We'll just run through it and see what it's like."