Treasuring Friendship: Rustic Pathways’ Alumni Reflect on the Life-Changing Connections They’ve Made
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Treasuring Friendship: Rustic Pathways’ Alumni Reflect on the Life-Changing Connections They’ve Made

It’s not hard for law student Gabrielle Antolovic to share stories about the enduring friendships she made during her four trips with Rustic Pathways. Her list of friends is long, and the journeys they’ve had together since Rustic days are plentiful.

In fact, these Rustic friendships are so strong there isn’t any hesitation to reach out both in good times and in challenging ones. That happened with Gabrielle and her friend Maxx who she met on the Big Fiji Explorer program when she was a young teenager. Maxx contacted Gabrielle after his father passed away. He was hoping Gabrielle’s father, who is in the aviation industry, could help him achieve his goal of going to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The two connected, and it worked so well Gabrielle’s father ended up writing a recommendation letter for Maxx. Today Maxx is a U.S. Marine fighter pilot.

The long-term benefits from that Fiji trip didn’t stop there. Gabrielle also ended up using her connections from Fiji for her own support. She had a period of time when she was struggling amid concerns about her sister’s mental health. Gabrielle reached out to Carl, a former Rustic program leader, 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.”

Rustic alumna Annabelle Bragalone can relate to this kind of connection. She met her close friend Fernanda during the Ultimate Latin America program. They met at the airport and quickly became friends.

“She was my partner for rappelling down waterfalls in Costa Rica, going to the beach in the DR, walking around markets in Peru, zip lining in Cuba, and so much more. We did everything together,” Annabelle said.

After that trip they went home to start their senior years, and then in September 2017 Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico where Fernanda lived. Annabelle invited Fernanda to Dallas, Texas in the months afterwards when Puerto Rico was still recovering from the storm.

“Fernanda came and stayed with me in Dallas for about a week over Thanksgiving,” Annabelle said. “This was so fun. I was able to show her all of Dallas… She came to my high school and watched a true Texas high school football game. She also came to my entire family’s Thanksgiving celebration, which was so fun because my family is huge and she got to meet everyone!“

Less than a year later, Fernanda was able to return the favor and Annabelle visited Puerto Rico.

“This trip was incredible to say the least,” Annabelle said. “I mean Puerto Rico is an amazing place, but getting to spend it with Fernanda and truly immerse myself in the culture was phenomenal.”

A Worldwide Network of Friends

It’s common for cultural immersion opportunities to continue long after Rustic journeys end. Gabrielle says she has been able to build a network of peers in different parts of the world as a result of her trips.

After she participated in the Lake Titicaca Service Adventure program in Peru in 2014, she travelled to Japan to visit two friends. She had met Joanna and Karen during her Rustic journey to Laos the year before, and joining her on this trip was one of her newer Rustic friends – Conor, who she met while in Peru.

Conor continued to be a friend long after this international trip. Later he invited Gabrielle and other Rustic alumni to his home in Toronto for a reunion. Then he stayed with Gabrielle’s family for a summer while he did an internship in Dallas before he went on to graduate from Harvard University. Gabrielle said these friendships have made a world of difference in her life.

“I am very fortunate to have met the kindest, coolest, and most interesting people on these trips,” Gabrielle said. “It has changed my life in so many different ways, and I am so thankful.”

Newer alumni also are benefiting from these friendships as the world tries to recover from the pandemic. Freja Tellefsen traveled to Fiji and Thailand with Rustic in 2018 and 2019 and now is taking a gap year after graduating in 2021. She wrote her alumni story for Rustic as she set out on her gap year adventures.

“I write this essay on a train to Paris, with friends I met in Fiji two years ago. We reunited in Greece and are now travelling around Europe over the next couple of weeks,” Freja said. “My Rustic Pathways experience remains a significant pillar in my life to this day.”

Finding Friends in Remote Communities

Friendships also often extend beyond the students traveling together with Rustic. Many alumni talk about villagers they met during their journeys who they befriended.

Kristen Gadbois, who is pursuing a career in international healthcare, was touched by a friendship she made with a teenage boy during a Rustic journey to the Mae Ra Moe refugee camp in Thailand.

Through conversations in broken English, she learned about how he fled Myanmar and walked for miles to get to the camp. He talked about his siblings and school. After days passed, she went to him to say goodbye and try to express how he had made a profound impact on her life. Then he interrupted her.

“He thanked me for my friendship, pulled a red string from his pocket, and proceeded to tie it on my wrist. He said he had found it and picked it up because of the nice color. He knew it wasn’t much, but he hoped it would always remind me of my friend in Mae Ra Moe,” Kristen said.

It can be difficult for local community members like this to keep in touch, but Gabrielle saw how hard one young boy she encountered in Fiji tried. She said the young boy gave her a letter and told her to please find Megan Reynolds to give it to her.

When Gabrielle returned to the United States, she says she went on a “spy mission” to find Megan. She searched on social media for people with that name who were in her age group and reached out to them one by one. Eventually she found the right Megan and forwarded the letter.

Then one day Gabrielle was hosting a Rustic event in her home in Dallas. The event brought together potential Rustic students and alumni who shared photos and talked about their travels. Gabrielle shared the story about Megan, and out of the blue a young woman in her house raised her hand.

“I am Megan Reynolds,” she said.

It’s amazing on a planet with nearly 7.7 billion people that at times it seems so small. But that’s part of the magic of an international, immersive travel experience. It brings together so many people from so many different backgrounds who may have not met in any other way.

As Maya Angelou once said, “A friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face.”

For more details about Rustic Pathways’ 2022 programs, please visit our program page on the website.


About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer

Mary is a Content Writer at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.