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Gap Year Program Leader Highlight: Max Veenema
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Gap Year Program Leader Highlight: Max Veenema

Name: Max Veenema

Gap Year Program Leader: South Pacific Service and Ocean Skills

How did you begin working for Rustic Pathways?

I started working with Rustic in the Fiji Islands. I had come from California, where I spent much of my time in the Pacific Ocean. I wanted to experience a new culture while still working in a marine environment. Fiji was a perfect place to fulfill this dream. There, I fell in love with the tropical reefs, warm sun, and the “sega na leqa” (“no worries”) attitude of the people. My summer was well spent leading teenagers as we explored the rich Fijian culture, and experienced the spectacular natural beauty of the small country.

Tell us a little bit about your background. Do you have previous experience working with students?

Before Rustic, I worked as a marine science instructor on Catalina Island, CA. I worked with a wide age-range of students, but was always impressed by the thought-provoking conversations I would have with high school students. I had the opportunity to teach in a experiential learning environment, meaning we snorkeled, kayaked, and hiked all while learning about the wonders of California ecology. My academic background is in biology, so I totally geek out over different types of plants and animals. All of my travel plans are actually fueled by a list of animals I want to see around the world.

What do you think students gain out of a gap year?

The benefits from taking a gap year are invaluable. A gap year can mean so many things for so many different people. Leaving high school and taking that next step is a big deal in a teenager’s life, and I believe that taking a year to take a deep breath before the plunge is so necessary. Gap allows students to take a break from strict academia to learn more about who they are and where they find joy in the world. Proceeding with life holding on to this internal knowledge and growth is so helpful in their next journey.

Describe one of the lessons you see your students learn on their gap semester.

I see students learn how to coexist and thrive in a community setting. Three months is a long time to be together with a group, and gap forces students to find the best in each other and have conversation if something bothers them. Our group becomes such a close little family that we end up knowing everything about each other, from happiest memories to the consistency of our most recent bowel movements! Even if they come from vastly different backgrounds, students learn how to live together in a unified group.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned as a leader?

I learned so many things while leading a gap semester. I learned how to surf, that I love Māori culture, and what the word “zorbing” means to name a few. The biggest lesson I learned was how contagious an attitude can be. If one person is down, it can affect the whole group’s mood. Conversely, one person with an excited attitude can infect everyone around them. This was reflected in my last gap where I was so happy to wake up everyday knowing that my group would be just as stoked to start the next day’s adventures. They were an inspiration to me as a leader.

When you wake up in the morning, what gets you up out of bed and excited to be with the students?

First of all, the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is the promise of a cup of coffee. But what gets me excited to be with my students is all of the amazing things we get to share and experience everyday. Bungee jumping? Sky diving? The Great Barrier Reef? Glacial hikes? Yes please! Everyday of gap semester is packed with unbelievable activities and breathtaking beauty.

What is your favorite part of working in the South Pacific?

My favorite part about working in the South Pacific is the amount of time we get to spend playing in the ocean. I am convinced that I was a whale in a past life, so there is no such thing as too much water time. Diving with sharks in Fiji, surfing in New Zealand, and diving on the Great Barrier Reef make this trip next level for me.

What’s your favorite travel story?

While traveling with some friends in Indonesia, we found ourselves at Ukuwatu Temple, an architectural marvel nestled on top of a breathtaking cliff. As we were walking around, there were constant reminders over the intercom about the monkeys. Based on the announcements, I pictured them as little thieves looking to steal my last name if I wasn’t careful. We laughed off the announcements, what visitor would be dumb enough to let a small monkey steal their stuff?! However, these were not your average animals. They had a routine that they practiced down to the last pout. While one macaque hammed it up for the camera, my friend, Alyssa, was blindly unaware of the heist about to unfold. Before she could even acknowledge its presence, a monkey as slick as Carmen San Diego herself swiped the sunglasses right off of Alyssa’s surprised face! The following high-speed chase lasted all of 15 seconds before our little monkey had dismembered both lenses from the glasses and tossed one of them as sacrifice into the churning sea below. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt for weeks after.

Fun facts about Max:

If I could have coffee with any famous person it would be… I’ve narrowed it down to three, and please don’t make me choose. I would have a coffee with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sylvia Earle, and the incomparable Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
I can cook a mean…Vegan Coconut Bacon
The activity at the top of my bucket list... cage diving with Great White Sharks
I have been to… 17 countries
My one hidden talent is… I am a champion at Dance Dance Revolution.
Favorite international custom is… Fiji has an impressive knack for taking American top 40 music, and adding a Fijian twist to it. It may not be a traditional custom, but this contemporary custom tickles me.
Three must-haves in my backpack are… my travel French press coffee mug, a good book, and my sketch pad.
My favorite thing about my hometown is… the fact that I know it’s always there. After traveling around the world, I can always come home to visit friends and family.
One thing I can’t travel without… a water bottle. I drink water like a camel at an oasis.


Max was previously a Gap Year Program Leader for South Pacific Service & Ocean Skills semester and is currently leading summer programs in Peru. Want to take time off to travel the world with awesome guides like Max? Click here to check out our Gap Year programs. Want to meet another Gap Year Program Leader? Click here to get to know Allison!

About the Author

Katey Finnegan