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An Educational Journey that is Volunteering...

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Project Trust is the oldest educational charity specialising in overseas volunteering placements for school leavers. Every year Trent has between 1 – 3 students from Sixth Form who take up this opportunity to volunteer on placements in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Sophie Muir-Harris, Suzi McMillan and Katie Bowden are the three students who will be embarking on this challenge.

Back in 1984, when Ms Matthews – Assistant Head (Head of Sixth Form) left school; she was involved in the Project Trust and volunteered in Africa.

Ms Matthews has produced the below editorial about the educational journey, that is volunteering with Project Trust:

"Working in education, and more specifically with Sixth Formers, means that every summer I watch jealously as a fresh cohort leaves school and heads off for new challenges and adventures – often to university, but also frequently on exciting Gap Year and travel placements around the world. This year has felt particularly poignant for me, as I celebrate 30 years since receiving my own A level results and then – it felt like only a few hours later - flying off to Khartoum to start my year as a Project Trust volunteer in Sudan.

Looking back to my last year at school, I can’t remember the precise moment when Project Trust became the right way to step off what had become for me the educational treadmill, but I do remember my selection week in Coll. A cold, clear morning in February saw me leaving leafy Warwickshire on the slow train north – unbelievably slow, unbelievably far, for someone who had never been further up than Kendal – and boarding the ferry from Oban. The week that followed was the most amazing combination of physical and cerebral experiences; digging a potato patch for an endless day sticks in the memory, as does the end-of-week ceilidh at the castle. I had been troubled with a hockey-related cartilage problem all year and there was one boisterous reel which just about finished me off; much to the surprise of whoever was waiting to spin me round I dropped like a caber as the music swirled, and spent the rest of the evening immobile on a chair.

The fundraising which followed took on many forms – the sponsored bed-push from my hometown to nearby Stratford would probably not be allowed in these days of advanced risk assessment, and certainly the clutch on my mum’s ancient Fiesta was never the same again. I also had tremendous support from my school, brass band, church community, local businesses, and the Rotary and Lions organisations, who were all generous in their contributions. When the town newspaper came to school to take my photo for a news item we couldn’t find a map of Africa in the Geography cupboard – to this day my parents still have the one of me looking slightly dazed in front of South America…

 

I look back on my time in Sudan from this distance of so many years – and where did they go? – and remember a world then unconnected by Skype, the internet and face-timing. When there was a bloodless coup which ousted the President, when I caught malaria, when a cholera epidemic hit the camp – by the time my friends and family heard from me, and responded in suitably horrified tones, the various crises were past and ‘normal’ life had resumed. My first placement, teaching in a girls’ school in Sennar, gave me my first experience of discussing with students the relevance of classic literature: it was hard to square the pile of fresh copies of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ with 60 young Sudanese teenage girls unlikely to experience the tensions of political betrayal. Although as an English teacher I have had the debate many times since, that first time is still perhaps the most striking. The second half of the year was spent in a small refugee camp on the edge of the Eritrean border – these were tough times in Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, and indeed the original ‘Live Aid’ – inspired by the need to help those affected by the famine which swept across the region - took place in the summer of 1985, just as I was leaving Khartoum. In this second placement I worked originally with a team of Swedish medics, but when they returned to Europe I was the only Westerner – the only white – in a camp of around 10,000 Eritreans: I was indebted to the friendship and open arms of this community of displaced people, and learnt something there about human resilience which has stayed with me. Despite the economic, political and agricultural troubles, I remember Sudan as a beautiful country, hugely hospitable and culturally rich – and about as different from the suburban cocoon of leafy Warwickshire as it was possible to get.

Looking back, I think that it was the sheer breadth of experiences undertaken that year – skills developed, challenges overcome, invitations accepted, food tasted, people met, places visited – which opened up a world of opportunities, both at the time and in the years since. Working with students now gives me the opportunity to extol the virtues of Gap years in general, and Project Trust in particular. I do genuinely believe that almost any experience a student can have between school and FE, HE or employment is worth doing – but being able to invite returned volunteers into school to talk about their experiences (needless to say, more recent than mine) is both rewarding and affirming. This year three of my students have applied to volunteer with Project Trust, and Sophie has already made her own Coll-bound odyssey. She commented; ‘I had heard about the organisation via my own research but it was a returned volunteer who came to speak to us at school who really piqued my interest. I chose Project Trust specifically because of the difference they make in people’s lives – I want my gap year to mean something. My selection week on Coll was one of the best weeks of my life! The family I stayed with were so lovely and they really helped me realise that Project Trust was right for me. The activities were fun although challenging, but I did really enjoy the potato digging! Looking ahead to my year abroad, I think the hardest thing for me will be missing home and my friends, but hopefully I'll be able to handle that and in doing so I hope to gain some world experience as well as building some lifelong friendships."



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