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ICS Pre-Placement Training with VSO: What To Expect

Congratulations on being accepted onto the ICS programme! That’s why you’re here, right? After that tough assessment day, you’re now preparing for the ICS pre-placement training. Lucky for you, I’ve written a blog post that covers my entire experience at the event and what you can expect from it!

There’s a mixture of emotions running through your head right now. That’s cool, don’t stress. It was the same for me. You’re getting lots of questions from family members that you just don’t know how to answer yet, and that’s also completely cool. This training weekend is definitely designed to help answer those questions, and help people come to terms with what international volunteering actually is.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty stuff, I must mention that the ICS training days don’t tend to be massively specific to your placement country. They strive to give a more general idea of working overseas and the challenges you might face. I’ve racked my own brains (and other volunteers) to highlight some of the key discussions that took place. This includes teamwork, new cultures, health, and security.

Like I say in all of my volunteering posts, I can only speak from my experiences. My ICS training weekend was in Cardiff in June 2019 with VSO.

Medical 🚑

Borderline hypochondriac? Me too. Health is one of the biggest worries when it comes to traveling and working overseas. It was for me anyway. It makes you much more grateful for the NHS, I can tell you that for free. At pre-placement training, there was an expert medical advisor who ran through information on the potential medical scares in-country and scenarios that are common among volunteers. This person knew what they were talking about. Plus, as a returned volunteer, trust me when I say that you’re genuinely in the best hands when it comes to any medical-related issues.

Still hesitant to believe me? A few of my friends did get sick when we were in Zambia, although these weren’t life-threatening issues. If we were ever slightly under the weather, our project officer was in constant communication with the UK medical team, which was definitely reassuring. That’s the level of care they provide. I’m positive yours will do the same if anything like that does occur when you’re on placement!

The UK medical team controls everything from back home and will oversee everything. They’re always on top of their game which means you don’t have anything to stress about.

I really appreciated that the medical expert had worked overseas herself in the voluntary sector. I find that if someone is speaking from their own experiences, giving you advice from what they’ve learned, then it means so much more.

VSO ICS Training Day - Cardiff
Outdoor activities as it was a sunny weekend!

We did a few activities within this session too. One involved us deciding what we’d pack in our first aid kits. This was definitely a big topic of conversation, and I’d recommend writing down as much information as you can. However, before you go on placement, check the country’s laws to see what you can and can’t take in. Alternatively, speak to your ICS partner medical team for further advice.

We were shown a few off-putting images of health scares that give you no option but to follow their advice. No one wanted Guinea-worm from walking around barefoot. Don’t know what that looks like? You ain’t getting pictures on my blog. Google it if you’re brave.

Malaria was definitely something that was brought up over this session. We were all going to a country that had high rates of it, after all. Not only that, if you tell someone you’re going to Africa, it’s often the first thing they think about. Learning more about this was extremely beneficial as we were told the symptoms to look out for when on placement. Personally, I was more worried about getting malaria than I was about the entire security aspect. I was thinking that if our national treasure, Cheryl, who is from Newcastle got malaria, then me being from Newcastle, didn’t stand a chance. I can now confirm being back from Zambia, I did not get malaria.

Your brain will definitely be fried after this session, with so much information to take down. However, once you’re home, you’ll be able to compare notes with other volunteers. I’ll also be doing a blog post on what I packed for Zambia soon – highlighting what I did and didn’t need.

Security 🔐

This was an area that covered a lot of detail too. We had an overseas security expert come in and give us a super interesting talk. He was like the real-life James Bond. Not even kidding, he told us that he once worked with the Secret Intelligence Service. I was sold. This guy knew exactly what he was talking about.

From what I’ve gathered, the security training might differ slightly depending on your placement country. While it covers the same areas simultaneously at each event, there will likely be some specifics.

We had an introduction to safety and security and why it’s important when volunteering. This involved a lot of group participation and we all had similar ideas on the subject. While keeping yourself safe might seem like common sense in the UK, it’s more about understanding potential situations you could be in. As well as this, knowing how you would react and what measures you should be taking when confronted with a challenge.

VSO ICS Training Day - Cardiff with Katie Unsworth
Creating posters about teamwork, featuring Katie Unsworth!

There were a lot of ‘worst-case scenario’ examples and some real stories from previous placements. We were told that it’s always important to stay cautious when you’re out on placement and to never put yourself in a dangerous situation and how to remove yourself from one. Political protests at the local market? Stay within your group and move out of the area to a side street. That sort of thing.

I must admit that this seems a rarity to me, and I never encountered anything of the sort when away. ICS volunteers are often massively respected in communities. They appreciate the work that we do and want to help us make a difference!

The session also covered sexual assault and how this links back to the medical side of things too. Although we were told that there haven’t been many cases from volunteers on this, it’s good to feel prepared. If anything like that does occur, you’ll know what to do.

LGBTQ+ was another area that was covered on the day. Most of the countries where ICS operates, homosexuality is still illegal. We were told that while it’s never okay to suppress your views and who you are, there are some precautionary measures that you should take to stay safe. 

The security expert reiterated the fact that there is a team constantly monitoring the security of each placement. So for example, if they can see a potential threat to volunteers, they can react in a timely manner to keep everyone safe.

Community Integration & Team Building 🌍 

Most volunteers attend the ICS training days expecting it to be fully tailored to their placement. However, there are no specifics to your actual community and host family. The session on community integration is a more general discussion, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t find out the information you anticipated. It’s important to note that there will be a Skype call lined up with the project officers in your placement country, and you can ask questions like this there.

This session had the most team building activities. It all linked perfectly together the idea of teamwork is something you will rely on when being out on placement. The other volunteers will become your biggest support system. No word of a lie; you’ll laugh, love, and cry together. They’ll become your family and life-long friends when it’s all over. My favourite activity was when we were given a lump-sum of £100bn, and we all debated where we’d spend that money in relation to different world issues. Whether this is education, the climate crisis, or poverty, this definitely sparked the passion within people to shout about things they care about.

You will also look at videos returned volunteers have made as part of their Action at Home projects. You’ve probably saw some online already, but it gives you an even greater insight into what life is like and how you can immerse yourself into a new culture more easily. The staff who supervised the ICS training altogether had volunteered before on the programme, so they were able to tell us their own personal stories. It’s also a great opportunity to ask them questions about their time, such as what gifts they took for their host family.

Free Time 🎳

I definitely found that pre-placement training was a great opportunity to meet the people who would be sharing the ICS journey with me. We were all in the same boat, and while most of us had interacted over social media, a lot of us hadn’t met in real life. There were only a few people there who I remembered from my VSO assessment day – and it was amazing to see that they also got onto the programme.

I’m not going to lie, the days were very long. Early starts and late-ish finishes. There was a lot to cover and VSO wanted to make sure that they provided us with all of the information needed. That being said, we still had some time to interact outside of the sessions, mostly over breakfast, lunch, and dinner which was provided at the Youth Friendly Hostel.

Bonding with people didn’t feel forced in the slightest, due to everyone having a common interest in volunteering. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people that want to make positive changes is the essence of volunteering. When we did have free time, a few of us went for food, toured the city, and went bowling. It was genuinely a great weekend!

I really hope that this blog post gave you a greater insight into what you can expect from the ICS training days. I’d love to hear when yours is! Make sure to leave a comment and let me know.

A massive thank you to Kaite Unsworth and Maeve Dolan for chipping in with this blog post. If you’re a returned volunteer who would like to add something I missed, give me a shout!

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