The Crucial Role Program Leaders Play in the Student Travel Experience
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The Crucial Role Program Leaders Play in the Student Travel Experience

During a student travel program, there are many moments when a good program leader makes all the difference. These staff members are the ones who have the most interaction with Rustic students when they travel. They also are the ones who often get thanked in reviews for making a trip extraordinary.

A few comments from the summer of 2021 included:

“Jordan Woolsey was an amazing counselor….. He did an excellent job at keeping us safe, but at the same time having a tremendous amount of fun.”

“The program leaders were great, they were always there for each one of us, and everything was amazing :)”

“My teen adored her program leaders and felt very inspired by their experiences and connection.”

But what do program leaders do and how are they qualified for the job? Here are some answers to these common questions.

The Key Program Leader Responsibilities

As the job title suggests, program leaders are ones who guide students through plans created by country directors and program managers. Their key responsibilities include:

  • Fostering positive group dynamics
  • Facilitating the program experience
  • Helping students understand and respect the culture they’re visiting and travel responsibly

A program leader facilitates a group discussion in Fiji.

Program leaders often have a good level of camaraderie with the students. Nancy Trujillo has definitely found this during the programs she has led in six different countries. This summer in Peru, she says the support was mutual when they did a very difficult hike.

“Students were physically having a hard time hiking since the thin air was causing altitude sickness,” Trujillo said. “I was trying to take care of students, but then a student asked me if I was okay and how he could help me.”

That attitude of looking out for each other is common and includes challenges that are more mental than physical. This may happen with students who struggle with their confidence or their mental health.

Program leader Alex Sanchez, who led students during the 2021 Hawaii Service program, says she had a student come to her who didn’t feel like he fit in. Afterwards, she worked to incorporate him better in the group, and by the end, she says he was beloved by his fellow travelers.

Cody Miller, who has led 20+ programs for Rustic, says he had a student in deeper distress when he led a program in Fiji. But the program leaders found a way to support him through a battle with depression.

“One night on a remote island myself and another program leader stayed up listening to, chatting with, and aiding this student until we could get in touch with their therapist back home,” Miller said.

Alumna Gabrielle Antolovic says this level of support led her to reach out to a program leader after she finished traveling. As she detailed in an article on Rustic friendships, Gabrielle contacted Carl, a former Rustic program leader, when she was struggling with concerns about her sister’s mental health. She says she felt comfortable calling him even though she had only been a student of his for two weeks.

“The trust I formed with him during our short time together in Fiji was so strong, it carried on when I was in a time of trouble, and he popped into my mind instantly,” Gabrielle said. “Carl became a confidant for lots of issues. He gives good advice and has so much compassionate energy.”

Because of these strong connections, program leaders often inspire students to follow their passions when they return home. Miller had a case where a student created a composting project at their high school after a program. Now the whole school composts as a result of this effort.

Cody Miller (rights) joins in the fun during an international Rustic Pathways program.

Miller was able to inspire this project because he had the background necessary to give students ideas and to support them through thick and thin.

The Qualifications of Great Program Leaders

Many program leaders have experience that enables them to educate students about a variety of subjects, particularly related to their service project. This includes Miller who has a degree in marine biology, and Costa Rican program leader Antoine Callo, who is a carpenter. Their expertise has enabled them to lead science and construction-based projects.

Program leaders also generally have worked with students before joining the Rustic team. Just two examples include Miller and Emily Green, who has led programs in three countries. Miller served as an educator and coach for more than 15 years. Green worked as an environmental educator at an outdoor school.

Many leaders like Green also have valuable language skills. Generally each program will have at least one leader from the country itself. This ensures that they not only know the language, but they also know the communities and their culture.

Rustic staff members share music with students in Fiji.

On top of this, program leaders are experts on the ins and outs of travel with many of them having been to multiple countries in different parts of the globe. Trujillo has led programs on three continents and Green on two. Miller travels internationally on a regular basis and many others have done the same.

To make it all come together, program leaders go through 64-80 hours of online and in-country training on topics ranging from program safety to running games and group activities. Many leaders also go through 80 hours of Wilderness First Responder training that allows them to handle emergencies in remote locations.

Alumna Linnea Martin, who traveled to Peru and Fiji with Rustic, says her knowledgeable program leaders enabled her trips to be the defining moments of her adolescent experience –  helping her discover what she is passionate about.

As Martin said, “The true value of the opportunity to be led, quite literally around the world, by such knowledgeable, respectful, and interesting Rustic program leaders and immerse myself within a foreign environment with other individuals from all over the world is something that is difficult to put into words.”

To view more information about the leader training program, click here. To learn more about the programs they run, please visit our program page.


About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer