How Travel Scholarships Change Lives
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How Travel Scholarships Change Lives

When Esther Ceballo Ortiz was young, her mother worked in a public hospital in the Dominican Republic. She recalls visiting the medical center and hearing stories about people who died because their families could not afford healthcare.

Those stories stuck with Esther. Later when the family moved to the state of Georgia in the United States, she used these experiences in her schoolwork. In high school she needed to create an extensive research paper for her International Baccalaureate program. She decided to write about African American women who died from preventable causes during pregnancy.

That project sparked an interest in research and service travel. But making her international travel dreams a reality would be difficult. Esther pursued the idea by applying for a scholarship with Rustic Pathways.

That decision changed everything. In the summer of 2022, Esther journeyed to Costa Rica on the Surf and Service program on a full travel scholarship. She didn’t know how to swim, but she knew she wanted to challenge herself.

Rustic Pathways students take a break from service.

Esther and the other students in her program take a break from service.

“I think that program changed me in ways I didn’t know I needed to change,” Esther said. “I learned things I didn’t know I needed to learn. I look at the world differently now. I feel like my goals for life are different now.”

During the program, Esther directly saw the benefits of helping others while doing international service. That solidified her career plans. She is now attending Stanford University on a pre-med track with the memories of her travels fresh in her mind. She hopes to work in public health internationally.

But her program experience did much more than cement her career trajectory. Esther says she was deeply impacted by how Costa Ricans handle day-to-day life.

“In the U.S. there’s a hustle culture… But in Costa Rica it just felt like people were living so freely and so happy. They were enjoying every moment as if it was the last,” Esther said.

One of Esther’s program leaders repeatedly reminded the students of this perspective. If they got stressed, he’d tell the students “aqui ahora” to get them to focus on the “here and now.” That has helped Esther enjoy smaller moments and consider living someday outside the United States.

She is certainly not the only scholarship student to have had such an impactful experience.

In the last five years, Rustic Pathways has given out $750,000 in scholarships and financial aid to students around the world. And many of them have similar stories.

A Launching Pad

Back in 2016, Rustic Pathways had a large number of students hoping to get a travel scholarship. After reviewing applications, more than 40 of them were selected for travel scholarships. They traveled to countries ranging from Peru to Thailand. Afterwards, many of them went on to pursue study abroad programs, college degrees, and meaningful jobs in the workforce.

Domenica Dillon was one of them. While in high school, one of her friends passed away. While she was grieving, it was suggested that she try a travel program during the summer.

After she won the scholarship, Domenica used the funds to travel to Costa Rica. That proved to be a step in the right direction.

“It forced me to think of something other than what was going on in my life,” Domenica said. “The problem solving required was really empowering – how to get to my gate, how to make friends – figuring that out on my own definitely helped me.”

That much-needed mental break enabled Domenica to reflect and see the world from a different perspective.

“It really encouraged me to slow down and reconnect with myself personally. I had been detached from life prior to the trip. I had to re-meet myself. I went into the next school year with a better outlook, and it helped with healing long term,” Domenica said.

The Costa Rica program turned out to be a springboard for Domenica, and she later studied abroad in Spain. Now she’s back in the states working on her master’s degree in management at Clark University.

Like Domenica, Maya Caminada used her travel experiences as a launching pad. She traveled to Costa Rica in 2016 on the Turtle Conservation Project. Her parents are teachers so they encouraged travel but also struggled to afford it. The scholarship allowed Maya to explore her interest in environmental sustainability – an interest she maintains to this day.

Turtle Conservation Project, Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

“I’m still very much in love with nature. I think that I grew in my independence so much as well.  I think establishing the confidence in yourself to travel alone – to have that independent spirit – is a great thing that traveling teaches you,” Maya said.

Later Maya studied abroad in Ecuador where she worked with indigenous cultures in the Amazon. She is now applying to law school with the hopes of pursuing a career in environmental law focused on protecting indigenous rights and sustainability.

The 2022 scholarship recipients are now hoping to walk in the footsteps of such former recipients. Like their predecessors, they pursued travel scholarships to open new doors.

Recent Scholarship Recipients Set Their Sights on the Future

This year Rustic Pathways partnered with Student Universe to provide both funds both for program costs and airfare. The recipients received financial assistance for programs in five different countries. They included a brother and sister who had never previously been on a plane and many students with extensive volunteer experience.

The scholarships were awarded based on both financial need and merit. The recipients ranged in age from 14 – 19. Like Esther, the older recipients have noteworthy education goals. This includes rising seniors Candace Leavao who hopes to become a surgeon and Janae Khan who wants to study abroad and get a degree in philosophy or religion.

Janae says traveling to Costa Rica brought her serenity and clarity that will serve her well as she tackles her senior year and beyond. As an extrovert, she really connected with her program leaders in Costa Rica and spent much time chatting with them. During downtime though, she also found she had another side that surprised her.

Janae (left) enjoyed hanging out with the program leaders during her Rustic Pathways program.

Janae (left) enjoyed hanging out with the program leaders during her Rustic Pathways program.

“I learned that I enjoy my own company more than I realize,” Janae said. “I spent more time than I anticipated reading books for school and just listening. It was really nice and peaceful.”

This chance to see yourself in a different light is something that Esther says makes travel so special. It was one part of the journey that she appreciated the most.

“I feel like in a different country, I can reinvent myself into who I want to be outside of my parents’ expectations, U.S. expectations on kids, U.S. expectations on immigrants, or my community’s expectations of me. I can just be me,” Esther said.

Current students are encouraged to follow in these footsteps and apply for our annual scholarships. Rustic Pathways is now opening its application process for 2023 programs. Visit our financial aid page for more information.

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.