Gap year: volunteering abroad

By Beth Townsend

During my gap year I spent three months volunteering in Ethiopia, Africa. It was a brave decision for me because it was the first time I’d been outside of Europe.

I went with a government funded programme called International Citizen Service (also known as ICS). I chose ICS because they are well recognised, so I knew I’d be looked after and it was affordable.

Life in Africa is so different to England that trying to talk about my experience is quite difficult. But to put it as simply as I can, it had such a big influence on my life that I want to go back and work there. So it helped me choose a degree in sports development which will be useful for a career working in international development, perhaps working for an international charity or sports organisation.

What did I do nearly 4000 miles away? Let me try to tell you about it…

Every UK volunteer lived with an Ethiopian family and an Ethiopian volunteer (who was also doing the project) so they could help with translations. The family cook for you and at first you might not like the food, but you soon learn to love it.

My main role was teaching a class of disadvantaged primary school children. I fell in love with them and the feeling I got when they learnt something was unbeatable. The freedom to teach them whatever I wanted and the challenge of planning lessons gave me a new confidence and independence. The children were amazing. They don’t have much in their lives yet were the happiest, most energetic people I’ve ever met.

I realised just how lucky we are in England with education. The walls of the classroom were bare, with just a chalk board to teach with. Old school desks and benches filled the room, along with about 50 students. I now respect every teacher in the world and give them so much more credit than I did before. To create and deliver a lesson, and keep the children engaged is very difficult!

Besides working in the school, I helped serve food to a group of elderly men and women, planted trees, did litter picking, worked in a street school, played sports with street kids and ran a campaign promoting the benefits of hand washing because so many children suffer from diarrhoeal disease. I also had the occasional dip in a hotel swimming pool (it was very hot) and climbed a couple of mountains!

Volunteering with ICS definitely changed my life. My confidence grew, I gained independence and life skills like team work, communicating and taking on challenges.

You may have heard of National Citizen Service, or NCS for short. This is the sister programme to ICS and is for 15-17 year olds. I would recommend applying for it as soon as you are old enough. It runs out of term time, lasts four weeks and costs less than £50. You spend time doing super fun outdoor activities, a team project and living away from home. Plus it looks great on your CV.

ICS, who I went away with, is just a step up from NCS. It’s for 18-25 year olds and you spend three months volunteering in a developing country. Most of your costs are covered by ICS and all you have to do is raise a minimum of £800. But don’t worry, although that might sound like a lot, you have loads of time and help to raise it and the most important thing is that you show you are committed and have put in the effort. When you think about how much a holiday costs this is quite cheap, considering you’ll be spending 3 months abroad.

Beth is studying a BSc in sports development at the University of Portsmouth.

Read more about Beth’s gap year adventures here.

Here’s some information about working for charities and here’s a video about working in sports development.



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