What have your own international travels entailed?
I was had never left the country and barely spent time out of either Ohio or Massachusetts before the age of 20, and only had a little bit of European travel experience through a college summer program before my senior year. So it felt quite new when I found myself in my mid-20s, in a family’s ger in the Mongolian countryside eight hours from the city, getting a crash course in how to ride a horse. That was my first experience with Rustic Pathways. Since then, I have hiked in Nepal and Western China, drove a 4×4 in Australia, learned how to cook tajine in Morocco, and walked with chimps in Tanzania. Despite all those adventures, my fondest memories all include being hosted by local families or staff in their own homes, eating dinner, sharing stories, getting to know other people.
How long have you been working with Rustic Pathways?
I started with Rustic in 2012, thinking it would be a one- or two-year gig before going back into the community health sector in the States. I thought it would be a fun detour for a minute. Instead, I fell in love with the culture of the organization, and the impact we have on education. Eight years later, I’ve visited schools all across the USA and Canada to talk to students and teachers, co-led trips in Morocco and the Balkans, directed program operations in Mongolia and Tanzania, and now lead our customer service team in Cleveland, Ohio.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
There is nothing quite like seeing a student transform in just two weeks. I’ve watched shy, insecure teens become confident, outspoken adults just by learning to trust their peers, taking risks, and getting outside of their comfort zones. I’ve seen students who at first seem disrespectful and immature be confronted with the realities of travel, of peers who don’t know them and their reputation, and literally start to think outside of themselves and settle into more thoughtful, caring people. Or rather, they had that capacity all along and just found the space to embrace it. Watching a student learn to understand themself in a profoundly different way is the most gratifying aspect of what we do.
What makes Rustic Pathways different from other international program providers?
A lot of people don’t realize that there is an arms-length connection between most companies and the actual on-the-ground experience, which is provided by another company. At worst, there might be a token training and they slap a sticker and a T-shirt on someone else’s staff. At best, they spend more time on training and programming but the bonds are still loose and they might change operators every few years. Rustic is the exact opposite of that. We are our local partners – we train, develop, fund, and support our local teams 365 days a year. They in turn build deep bonds with community and nonprofit partners, local governments and embassies, and have the time and ability to select and train the best staff. That’s the type of thing that cannot be replicated except with time, effort, diligence, and investment.
Why do you view travel as an essential part of every education?
The tricky thing about travel is that it encourages profound self-reflection, but to do that well, we have to get out of our own heads. We have to make the effort to engage with the world outside of us and question our assumptions. I think this is important for adults but especially formative for students, as we all tend to think of ourselves and our experiences first. Traveling helps us realize that while we are guests in a place, even with the best intentions, we become supporting players in someone else’s movie. At best, we’re bit characters in the story of their life. So when travel is done well, we are confronted with our limitations, and forced to cultivate a sense of learning and wonderment and humility. We build connections with people from very different backgrounds and cultures. And hopefully, we leave better people, and we leave a positive impact behind us. To me, that is essential for every student to experience.
What makes you proud to work at Rustic Pathways?
We have the best people in the business! I get to work with smart, talented, hard-working, passionate colleagues every single day, and at every level of the organization, whether I’m co-leading a trip with our local team in a rural Tanzanian community, or working with our Personal Travel Advisors in our office in Ohio. Rustic feels more like a family than a company. I’m also proud of our year-round commitment to excellence and to our partnerships around the globe. Our teams don’t parachute in last-minute, they spend tons of time all year-long building immersive relationships with local partners, strengthening connections with governments, and training and developing staff. Most families may never realize how much care goes into every single detail of their experience, and we take pride in that, because it means we did something right.