GoAbroad Interview

Patrick Ziemnik - Tanzania Country Director

Patrick Ziemnik - Tanzania Country Director

Patrick began his career in experiential education when he became to co-manager of Harvard’s First-Year Outdoor program while he was earning his undergraduate degree. After receiving high honors from the Harvard University Social Studies Department, Patrick took his passion for social entrepreneurship and joined AmeriCorps as a fellow with New Sector Alliance, a nonprofit focused on building leadership capacity in the social sector. Moving on to Rustic Pathways Patrick became country director of Mongolia and now directs programs in Tanzania. Patrick is focused on crafting experiences that transform Rustic Pathways’ participants and at the same time benefit local partner communities.

How has your international experience evolved overtime to make you an even more valuable addition to the Rustic Pathways team?

I graduated with a bachelor of arts in social studies from Harvard University in 2009, with a focus on public health, and had only limited international experience by that point (a summer internship-abroad program in Greece through the Center for Hellenic Studies, unrelated to my major). My extracurricular experience was mainly in experiential education and leader-training through the Harvard First-Year Outdoor Program (FOP), so when I was hired by Rustic Pathways three years later, that background served me well in my first summer in the back country of Mongolia. Since then I have traveled extensively with Rustic Pathways as well as on my own!

Hiking in Tanzania

Students and staff after a hike and swim at a waterfall

Photo Credit: Meg Vogel

How did you get involved with Rustic Pathways?

A fellow member of the Harvard FOP student Steering Committee was already working for Rustic Pathways. At the time I was working in the “traditional” nonprofit sector at a community health center in Boston, but wanted to work for a more nimble, innovative social enterprise, whether for- or non-profit, someplace that was really doing interesting and dynamic work in sustainable development. I didn’t necessarily think that travel was a means to do that, until I started talking to my friend and learning what Rustic Pathways was really about.

How long have you been working with Rustic Pathways?

I was the Mongolia director for about a year-and-half after my first summer there, and then transitioned to Tanzania in January of 2014.

What makes Rustic Pathways different from other international program providers?

It comes down to two things: the quality of our discussions and the depth of our partnership with local communities. In our discussions, it’s not enough that students come, learn a few things, have fun, and leave; we want them to do all of that and be different and better people when they return home.

Walking in a forest in Tanzania

Discussing a proposed project site with community leaders

Photo Credit: Jackson Paul

My best example of this is actually a teacher-led group trip we ran in Mongolia for one of the top, top English international schools in Hong Kong. The teachers were all great and clearly beloved by their students. At the end of the trip, one teacher was giving some feedback to my colleague Connor, his partner for the trip, and he said, “I think I’ve learned more about being a teacher in this past week than in my past few years of teaching.” That’s as verbatim as I can remember it and it was so incredibly powerful, because that’s the bar we want to set, that students and teachers alike are absolutely transformed by these experiences. Do we hit that goal every time? No, but that’s what we aim for. Anything less means that we need to do better.

In our partnerships with local communities, we really focus on the medium-to-long-term benefit. We don’t just want to repaint a classroom and then leave; we want to help build the capacity of the school, community, or nonprofit, so they can better develop themselves or accomplish their mission. So each session of each trip we run is designed to fit into some bigger goal.

In Tanzania we’ve been partnering with one community for four years and another for eight, and we’re always seeking to deepen those relationships so that we can be sure that the service projects we undertake are genuinely helpful to the people who live, work, and play there, and meaningful and educational for our students.

Again, at Rustic we don’t pretend like we get this mix right every time, but it is an iterative process and we are constantly seeking new knowledge and ways to improve.

What do you consider the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

It’s really hard to pick the most fulfilling aspect of my job! I love the people I work with. They’re some of the smartest, most dedicated, most professional individuals I’ve been around. It says a lot that we are so dispersed and yet the team culture is probably stronger than at most organizations.

I’d also add that seeing the students at the end of their programs is inspiring. The same student who was nervous and uncomfortable and couldn’t wait to call home on his first day, simply doesn’t want to leave on his or her last day, and is already talking about coming back to the area and scheduling a reunion with his or her new friends.

What is a typical day like for Rustic Pathways’ program participants in Tanzania?

A typical day varies a lot based on the program, and we currently run six different programs. One group of students might be summiting Kilimanjaro at sunrise, while another is prepping their tools for a day of mixing concrete under the watchful eyes of village masons while they build a home to host a permanent healthcare professional or a new teacher. A third might be laying the bricks for a community center, while other groups are plastering rainwater harvesting tanks or learning how to take surveys on community attitudes toward wildlife, with our partners Save the Rain and the Jane Goodall Institute, respectively. The following week, some of those same students might be kicking back on a beach in Zanzibar.

Safari in Tarangire National Park

On safari in Tarangire National Park

Photo Credit: Jessie Wachter

What makes Tanzania the perfect destination for international programs?

Here’s the thing, it’s not! There’s no such thing as the perfect destination, but it might be the perfect destination for you. We don’t do the luxury resort experience, so are you comfortable being a little rugged, a little “rustic”? Are you ready to have your attitudes and preconceived ideas challenged? Are you open to meeting new people, to sharing your culture with others, and for them to share with you? If you say “yes” to all of these then I think you’d have a great experience in a lot of destinations, but Tanzania might just be one of the best ones.

It is one of the most diverse places in the world, with a mix of ethnicities, backgrounds, and religions all united under one common language and culture in Kiswahili. If I had to sum up Tanzania in one word it would be karibu, which means “welcome”, you will hear it all the time.

What is the first thing program participants do when they arrive in Tanzania?

They sleep! Students arrive on an evening flight so the first thing they do is go to sleep. In the morning, the first thing we do is orient them to the country, we want them to learn a little about Tanzania, a little Swahili, and how to be culturally polite and appropriate before they even leave the hotel to embark on their adventure.

What are the most important things participants bring home with them from Tanzania, in your opinion?

Participants usually bring home two things: new best friends and hopefully a changed perspective on their own life and on Tanzania. We have students who will actually plan a trip together the following year who had never met before they arrived, which is always a great thing to hear! And on the personal impact side, we are constantly getting emails from former students, who are now adults, telling us how their careers and life choices have been changed by Rustic Pathways’ experiences they took ten years ago.

What is the one thing participants interested in joining Rustic Pathways in Tanzania should know before applying?

Do your research! Even within the same country, not every trip is right for each student. Think about what you want out of your experience, how you want to challenge yourself. Do you want adventure or service? What type of service do you most connect with? How comfortable are you being in a more remote location versus one that is closer to a major hospital? These are important questions and we have Global Program Advisors whose job it is to listen to your questions, concerns, and preferences, and help you come to the best decision on which country and which program is best for you!

Rustic Pathways staff in Tanzania

Staff wearing new gifts from our community partners

Photo Credit: Peter Genda

What is the most unique aspect of Rustic Pathways’ programs in Tanzania?

To save the best for last, I think our Tanzanian staff are what make these programs work. On the one hand, they ensure that our community partnerships are deep and meaningful and that we are not simply bringing our own assumptions to the table but really taking a community-centered, human-centered approach. On the other hand, they serve a double-role as program leaders for our students and as cultural ambassadors for their country.

When we say that we want our students to immerse culturally, we don’t mean we want them to take photos that mirror the images they’ve already seen on TV. Culture is more than that. It is current and dynamic as well as historic, and it is changing as quickly as Tanzania is changing (and the U.S. and all the other countries we visit). Our staff, simply by being friends and mentors to our students, provide a window into their cultures as lived experiences.

This makes me think of one of our project managers, Jackson, who loves teaching students about the practices of his own Iraqw tribe and how they adapted over time to better defend their cattle from other tribes. He’s very proud of his history, but he also has a poster of Jay Z in his apartment and he can hold court on the differences between the Tanzanian hip hop scene and its Nigerian and Kenyan counterparts. That’s only one narrow piece of Jackson’s life, and so an even smaller piece of Tanzania, but to me that’s real. That’s something students grab onto, because it makes them want to learn more.