I had always wanted to travel and had been thinking about taking a year out before going to college when my form teacher gave me a leaflet about the Scottish Churches World Exchange. I decided to go for it. After meeting the World Exchange team and going for a group interview at St Colm's College in Edinburgh, I was accepted. The interview was relaxed and gave me the chance to meet others who wanted to do the same as me. I managed to defer my place at college for a year and was able to have the best of both worlds.
The first preparation course was over a weekend at St Mary's, Kinnoull, in Perth. This was when I really began to learn what World Exchange was about. The other volunteers came from many different backgrounds and walks of life. There were graduates, married couples, retired people, school-leavers and tradespeople, to name but a few. But we all had the same perspective on life. We wanted to broaden our minds and our outlook on life by sharing our unique abilities with another culture, and to learn as much as we taught.
We found out about our placements and began to understand the basic skills required for the jobs we would be undertaking from returned volunteers and the World Exchange team. Placements included teaching, community and health work and could be changed if you were not happy with where you were going to be.
It was at the second preparation course that we got into the real training. We had workshops, discussions and wrote songs in groups about the experiences we were to face. It was educational and great fun but also quite tiring. On Saturday night we held a ceilidh, which was great. We danced, recited poetry and sang songs. This was a really good way to get to know the people we were going with in a relaxed social atmosphere.
Over the five days we shared our hopes and fears about the year ahead and strengthened each other for the challenges we would be facing. Discussions and group work helped us to become more aware of the world from which we come as we discussed such things as the political, social and economic situation in Britain. We also became more aware of the world to which we were going.
The spiritual focus during the course was important to me. Each day we held a short service, saying prayers and singing songs from all over the world. We also had Bible study sessions which encouraged and taught us about the attitudes required for our year abroad. It also helped us to feel part of a team working together, even though we would be so far apart, and strengthened our friendships further.
My own placement was to be at Cadmon's College in Tyre, Lebanon. Because of the political situation my parents and myself were slightly wary at first. However, after hearing about the placement from returned volunteers and being told that the situation was being closely monitored and we would be sent elsewhere if trouble started, I grew more enthusiastic and my parents were reassured.
I would be staying in the "boarding house" at the school with four other volunteers. It is more common to go in pairs but my placement wanted four new volunteers as well as the World Exchange volunteer who was already there. My job would be working as an assistant to the teacher in the nursery and primary school. This would be great experience for my course when I returned, as I would be facing the language barrier of teaching English to Arabic-speaking children. This would be a challenge in patience, tolerance and perseverance, especially as I do not speak any Arabic - as yet! However, only a very basic knowledge is required and I will learn the language more during the year.
I learnt a lot from the five-day course about teamwork, meeting and communicating with a whole range of people and sharing and learning with others. These are vital skills to be acquired for any job in the future and while I am away these skills will be strengthened. I may miss family and friends but having a totally different way of life will mean that time will pass quickly, maybe more quickly than I want it to.
The education system does not really prepare you for life after school and a year out doing something productive is a good way of finding out what life in the outside world is like. This means that you will not go into it blindly after college or university.
Some say that a year out gets you out of the study habit. Is that really such a bad thing? After 13 years of school education I think that people need this year to get life into perspective and to realise that although conventional learning from books is important nothing can replace life experience.
In my opinion, a year out is a great opportunity not to be missed. Although it may not be right for everybody and it can be wasted, if it is used wisely it is an experience that you may never have the chance to take once you get out into the world of work.