Ellie Schiappa - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

It was my freshman year of college, at a university that was my last choice of eight, and I was super unhappy. I hadn’t made a lot of friends, my roommates weren’t the best, and I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I reached a breaking point at the end of the spring semester, and through tears I started looking up the process of transferring to a school in Colorado. I had my transfer application filled out and ready to turn in when I realized that leaving my university in Western Pennsylvania was only going to solve part of my problems. What I really needed was a break; a break from school, and a break from real life, and a chance to get out and explore. So, I began the long search for a travel opportunity, and I spent two weeks obsessing over what to do and where to go.

Buddhas at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand
Buddhas at Wat Pho

Why did you choose Pacific Discovery?

I knew Pacific Discovery was my program the moment I started reading the program descriptions. I wasn’t exactly sure where I wanted to go, but when I started reading the Southeast Asia program tears came to my eyes. The words on the page really spoke to me, and I just knew that that was the program I was meant to participate on. They had a perfect a balance of service, adventure, and self-improvement. I was able to experience everything I wanted to all in one program and in nine weeks. Although I still continued to compare it with other gap programs, I just kept going back to Pacific Discovery, and after almost a month, I finally put my deposit down to travel with Pacific Discovery!

What was your favorite part about the destinations you traveled to?

We traveled through four countries, and each one was unique in its own way. But, my favorite part about the whole area was definitely the people. Every person I met during my time traveling was equally happy, warm, welcoming, and overwhelmingly kind. I learned a lot from the locals we interacted with and I have tried to bring their warmth home with me. Many of the people have so little and live a life of little luxury and high hardship, but are still the happiest people I have ever met. Everyone was willing to sit down with us and share their story (through broken English and/or a translator) or welcome us into their home and offer the little comforts they had.

The people I encountered taught me so much about their own culture, and my life at home. They all inspired me in such a unique way; they inspired me to be a better person, a happier person, and a more accepting person.

I also have to add, the food was pretty darn good. Although after about a month I was pretty riced out (we had rice every day for almost every meal), I was never disappointed. From the home cooked food from our host families, to the street food in the big cities, I was always eating something delicious and full of flavor. I experienced some of the spiciest food I have ever encountered, and some of the most unique (including a restaurant completely dedicated to bugs!).

Children singing in Laos
Kids singing us songs in Laos

What made your experience abroad unique?

The most unique part of my program was the other students I was traveling with. When I met them at the beginning of the trip, it was impossible to believe that they’d be the people I would grow close with and look at as family. But before I knew it, we had grown unbelievably close, and I can honestly say that was the hardest part about coming home. Leaving them was heartbreaking; they were my family, they had seen a side of me nobody, not even I, had seen.

Together we traveled through the unknown and experienced a part of the world that was once so foreign, but now feels like home. They helped me grow and learn about myself, and acted as my support when I needed it the most. It just amazes me that a complete group of strangers, from all different walks of life, could come together on the opposite sides of the world, and create an unbreakable bond. If it wasn’t for them, I know my experience would not have been the same, nor as meaningful.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

We had two absolutely amazing instructors, Jess and Devin, that guided us on our nine week journey. They constantly were pushing me out of my comfort zone and had so much to teach us about the area, the culture, and life. Their knowledge of the areas we traveled to was unbelievably valuable as well. They always knew where the best restaurants to eat were and the coolest sights to see. In-country, we often had multiple local tour guides as well, who were always super knowledgeable about their respective countries, full of information, and willing to share their stories. Between my leaders and other local guides we met along the way, I felt constant support around me in such an unknown place. They challenged me to ask questions and gain as much information as possible about my surroundings.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

It's hard to imagine doing anything differently; the whole trip almost feels unreal it was such an amazing experience. I learned things about myself that I would never have learned if I hadn't gone. Things I have changed about myself that would never have happened if I hadn't gone. But I think, if I had to change anything, it would have been realizing how important my group was to me. I took them for granted while traveling through, but looking back I realized how much they were a part of my life and how much we worked together to teach each other and improve on ourselves. It may seem little, but it really was a huge part. They are who you remember and miss the most at the end.

Tourists at Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Posing at Angkor Wat

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

Gosh, there was no typical day! Every day was super different and unique. But, we would generally wake up around 7 a.m., sometimes way earlier and sometimes if we were lucky we could sleep in until 8 a.m.! We would get breakfast and be ready to start our day around 8 a.m., and then we would go.

We would spend the whole day out and about learning something cool, doing something meaningful, or changing our lives or someone else’s. We rarely did the same thing twice. We would then return to the hotel right before dinner, have an hour or so to get ready, and then go back out to eat dinner. After dinner, when in the cities, we would explore the night markets and the food stalls, and then always end up going to bed around 10 p.m.

The days varied depending on if we were staying in a big city and we had a day full of hustle and bustle, contrasted with staying in homestays where we got delicious home cooked meals and peaceful days spent out in the wilderness.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

I just liked to explore! If we had a free day, generally I would just choose a direction and go. Since the cities and countries were so foreign to me, a lot of times we just kind of went for it to see what we would see. We didn’t have much free time, but most nights after dinner we would have to ourselves. I would use that time to catch up on my journal, read my book, or FaceTime my family to catch up with them!

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

Every place was different. We stayed anywhere from our own private beach houses to guesthouses to small village homestays in the most remote places. The accommodations exceeded my expectations; they were always so nice and the hosts so welcoming. Our homestays were some of the most humbling experiences I had ever encountered, and I was able to learn so much about their culture and mine while staying there. We received home cooked meals and personal stories of struggle and perseverance. I was comfortable in every place we stayed, and in no place did I ever feel unsafe. The guesthouses were situated in great places in town, and centralized so it was easy to reach any part of the city.

Pacific Discovery really went above and beyond to ensure our comfort and safety, in some places I felt like a princess!

Rice paddy in Laos
Rice paddy in Laos

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Limit the amount of t-shirts you pack, because you get a bunch of free ones along the way! But in all seriousness, go in with a completely open mind. Clear your head of any expectations, because trust me, the whole experience will exceed any you could have possibly had.

Have an open mind to the culture, to the food, to the people you meet, and especially the people you will be traveling with.

Your group becomes your family, and depending on how your relationship is with them, will impact your trip unlike you could imagine. It’s important to have an open mind toward yourself as well, be ready to unleash a side of you you never knew was there. Just be yourself, purely you at your core, with no pressure to be or look a certain way. Do not be afraid of that, do not be afraid to be vulnerable, and do not be afraid to let your true self shine.

Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?

My time abroad changed me; it changed me a lot. I know it, and even my family and closest friends have noticed it. It has changed me in ways I can’t quite explain or really understand yet myself. I have been home for a month and a half, and I still find myself reflecting and trying to make sense of what I went through. But I can say, I am definitely a more positive person and much more aware of my actions toward others.

Being abroad also helped me reevaluate what my true goals are for my life, and reach a realization of what I want to do with my career farther down the line. It helped me come to terms with a lot of decisions in my life I was not too sure of, and allow me to be content with my college and major choice. It taught me to stay calm in situations of stress and to laugh at even the roughest and hardest struggles one faces in life. I came home humbled and inspired by the people I had met, and the stories they shared with me of their hardships and the struggles they and their families have faced and still face every day.

Would you recommend Pacific Discovery to others? Why? 

I would recommend Pacific Discovery without a doubt in my mind. They were so organized and have their trips planned so well. My time with them changed me and all the other students I was traveling with. They have created meaningful relationships over the years with partners in-country, which allowed us to really get into the meat of the culture and the country. I saw things and participated in things I know I never would if I had been there alone, or with another company. The company is small and family oriented, and I never felt like we were a part of some tour company. We were just a group of friends traveling around together, experiencing amazing things, and learning so much.