As I started planning my gap year before university, I stumbled across the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme for 18-25 year olds by chance and I was very lucky that I did. With ICS and the charity Progressio, I spent three months from January 2016 volunteering on a development project with the Midlands AIDS Service Organisation (MASO) in Gweru, Zimbabwe. In the team of volunteers who travelled out to Zimbabwe with me, I was definitely in the minority as an 18-year-old straight out of A levels who had not yet been to university, and this initially made me panic about the experience I may be lacking. However, I think it's safe to say that volunteering in Africa was the best thing for me at the time. In our project, the number six became very significant, as our team was made up of six national volunteers and six UK volunteers and as a team by the end of the three months we managed to deliver 60 workshops to all our beneficiaries. As a result, I thought it would be fitting to give six reasons why I would urge anybody to do an ICS placement before university. 

1. Perspective

An ICS placement makes you very aware of world issues, especially of the real poverty in developing countries. We hear about these issues on the news every day but it is only after you have lived and worked with people who have so much less than you do that you realise how fortunate we are in the UK. This will definitely give you the drive to maximise every opportunity (especially regarding education) we have when you come back home.

2. Cross-cultural working

This is very much a 'buzz word' phrase with ICS but there is no doubt that development work gives you a greater appreciation of different cultures and this is definitely an important thing to develop before you go to university. One of my favourite aspects of my trip to Zimbabwe was joking about our different funny little habits with my Zimbabwean friend Abiana, such as the UK volunteers needing to drink a lot of tea and the national volunteers all sharing a love of changing their hairstyles. As long as you have a willingness to learn about another culture, you can have so much fun working with your team.

3. Living with complete strangers

Everyone says that the scariest yet most fun part about the first year of university is having to live, get along with and work with people you've never met before. If you are worried about this or want to see what it's like before university, then an ICS placement is for you. I wasn't particularly worried about this when I went to Zimbabwe but after finding a third sister for life in my fellow volunteer Rhi, I am even more excited to repeat this process at university.

National volunteer Rutendo Hove running an energiser during a HIV awareness session with a Rise and Shine youth club in Senga, Gweru

4. Confidence

With ICS, although it sounds cheesy, you are not just working with colleagues, you are working with your new family who support everything you do. You do not need qualifications or any previous experience working in development work (which I definitely didn't have!), all you need is a commitment to learning and the confidence that doing your best will be good enough! Even if you do not think you'd be able to deliver an HIV awareness-raising session to 70 youths, or teach 10 grandmothers how to calculate profit on their income generating activities (IGAs), your ICS family instil in you a sense of confidence and support that make you even surprise yourself!

5. Experience

Although I am only 19 (now), I can say that going to Zimbabwe to raise HIV and AIDS awareness was the best thing I have ever done and I already have many experiences that will help me in later life. I have taught other young people, arranged meetings with town pastors and organised events with the Government’s Ministry of Youth department for over 2000 people. Not many people can say this, and if you go on an ICS placement, who knows what amazing experiences you will have had before you go to university?

6. Independence

Although the ‘I’ in ICS stands for ‘international’, I found that my whole trip was very much centred around becoming more independent. To me, ICS is all about becoming an independent person in order to help others who are in greater need, and in turn discovering who you are and what you stand for. Once you've lived 6000 miles away from home for three months and realised you are not only able to survive, but also thrive, university will not seem like a daunting prospect! As well as this, you will come back having the independence to be an active citizen in today's society speaking out for what you believe in - if you don't do ICS for any other reason, do it for the desire to make a difference.

Written by ICS Alumni Stephanie Zioupos (January - March 2016, Team MASO, Gweru, Zimbabwe)