GoAbroad Interview

Brent Watkins - Vice President of Program Operations

Brent Watkins - Vice President of Program Operations

Brent holds a Masters in Education from Johns Hopkins University, where he is also an adjunct faculty member. Prior to joining Rustic Pathways, Brent worked for Teach For America where he managed a team that trained and prepared new classroom teachers. Brent brings his experience in learning development and teacher training to Rustic Pathways where he is in charge of program operations and new program design around the world.

You have been with Rustic Pathways for several years and worked in different roles and locations. How did you first become involved with the organization?

Prior to joining Rustic Pathways, I spent time as a classroom teacher in a struggling school in east Baltimore and later went on to manage a team of people who trained new teachers at Teach For America, a national education reform non-profit. In this work, I saw how powerful learning that happened outside of the classroom could be. I spent several summers leading programs for Rustic Pathways  and was sold on how these experiences could change students’ enduring mindsets -- I was hooked!

Study abroad students at the airport in Bagan, Myanmar

Traveling with a group of students in Myanmar. Bagan, Myanmar.

You’re an avid traveler, but much of your professional experience seems based in Southeast Asia. What is it about the region that appeals to you most?

People around the world are basically the same, they want the best for their communities and families, they want to have meaningful relationships with others, and they strive to leave a mark on the world. The differences that set us apart are subtle, things like the food we eat, religion, or cultural practices. I love meeting new people and building relationships across these subtle differences. Southeast Asia is one of the warmest and most welcoming regions  I’ve traveled in; it instantly feels like a second home.

Part of of the “ethos” of Rustic Pathways is to start meaningful dialogues and create real interactions with the local communities. As Vice President of Program Operations, how do you ensure your programs abroad include these immersive aspects?

This is actually the magic of what we do. Better than any other organization, we ensure that our team on programs is comprised of a dynamic group of staff who live and work in the communities in which we operate. This ends up creating the most enduring part of our experience, great connections with interesting and exciting people from around the world.

You were the Country Director of Myanmar for a few years and still work closely with projects there. As a country that has only recently opened to much of the world, how does your Off the Map: Burma program standout from other programs you offer?

As I mentioned earlier, part of our ethos is ensuring students have a genuinely local experience in places with an interesting or meaningful story. Our programs in Myanmar are unique because we take students to places that have only recently opened to the outside world, and particularly to places where many tourists still don’t have the knowledge or connections to access. Our local team in Myanmar is comprised of staff that represent the country’s many ethnic minorities and these staff provide us with unprecedented access to unseen corners of this beautiful country. I’ve spent years traveling in Southeast Asia and Myanmar still takes my breath away.

At Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar

At the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda with our incredible local staff. Check out the traditional Burmese longyi. Yangon, Myanmar.

What makes you think you would like to develop a program in a new area or country? What attracts you to the new site or community?

When we approach new program design, we spend a lot of time thinking about two areas of impact: our students and the communities we’re operating in. To create a powerful experience for students, we think a lot about the narrative a location tells and how our students will connect with this story while they’re traveling. As we think through the possible community impact, we look for opportunities to design programs around existing community initiatives so that we’re supporting goals and priorities that matter to each community. The magic of our programs is in the uniqueness of the experience, and a great deal of thoughtfulness goes into creating these unique experiences.

What is your favorite aspect of your job as Vice President of Program Operations for Rustic Pathways?

Since my primary responsibilities are to design and manage our programs around the world, I get the privilege of meeting lots of people from the communities in which we operate. Spending time with these people is one of the greatest parts of my job. Introducing students to these incredible people and communities makes it even more amazing.

Volunteer abroad experiences often change a participant’s view of the world. How do you make sure students who apply to Rustic Pathways are ready for these life-changing experiences?

We believe that travel provides a unique environment for learning. To take advantage of this unique environment, we focus on three core learning values that we encourage all of our students to embrace during travel: Respect, Engage, and Grow. By adopting these values during travel, we believe that students learn meaningful lessons through their experience. Engaging in new experiences, paired with thoughtful reflection, leads to growth. Throughout our programs, our leaders facilitate reflections that help students understand and absorb their experiences.

What is the best advice you can give a first time volunteer in Asia?

I’d encourage students to approach their time in Asia with an open mind and a sense of wonderment.

Fishing on Inle Lake in Shan State, Myanmar

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake. Shan State, Myanmar. 

How does your background with Teach for America affect decisions you make for educational program development today? 

During my time with Teach for America, I was both a teacher and a teacher trainer. I still stay very closely connected with teachers through my work on the adjunct faculty at the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. This work has taught me that the most successful students frame their learning differently; rather than focusing on building knowledge, these students focus on applying knowledge. This principle forms the foundation of our programs -- leveraging the unique learning environment of travel to encourage students to apply knowledge.

How do you ensure the security of your students?

As a company, we understand that risk is an inherent part of our programs. We visit remote destinations, expose our groups to unfamiliar surroundings, and encourage personal growth and development through new experiences. We also understand that each traveler is an individual with his or her own distinctive perspective and limitations. Whether trying new foods, summiting a mountain peak, or exploring undeveloped areas, we believe risk management is a fundamental component for positive transformations. Our passion and commitment to safeguarding our students and staff is driven by strong leadership, and is executed successfully throughout our ground teams and partners.

Risk management is a process that involves an ongoing commitment to identifying and assessing risks, developing actions to reduce their occurrence or severity, and implementing adjustments as situations change. Rustic Pathways adheres to this life cycle throughout all aspects of our business and formulates management plans to mitigate risk through prevention and to guide our critical response team when needed.

Where will your next trip abroad be and what do you hope to do there?

I’m leaving for Singapore and Myanmar to lead a program for a group of students from Singapore. The summer of 2015 I’m looking forward to spending some time in one of our most enduring and successful community partnerships in the Fijian village of Nasivikoso. Nasivikoso is tucked away in the remote highlands of Fiji and is home to Rustic Pathways’ Nasivikoso Village School project.