GoAbroad Interview

Rebecca Thomas - Southeast Asia Program Leader

Rebecca Thomas - Southeast Asia Program Leader

Rebecca went from Pacific Discovery alumni to Program Leader! Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Literature and Education at Colorado College. Rebecca developed her love for hiking, skiing, camping, and exploring the outdoors during this time. All this exploring led her to spend a semester of her junior year studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain and living with a Spanish host family. After advancing greatly in her Spanish abilities, she studied teaching methods in San Jose, Costa Rica thanks to a special grant. Post college, Rebecca spent time traveling and leading groups in several countries. She is excited to be a part of the Pacific Discovery team as a Program Leader in Southeast Asia!

Volunteers bathing elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bath time for the elephants during the week-long volunteer project at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Which Pacific Discovery program do you lead?

I lead the semester, summer, and high school programs in Southeast Asia, specifically in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

What makes these locations perfect for a Pacific Discovery program?

Southeast Asia is such a unique part of the world. In nine weeks, we travel through four very different countries, which allows participants to experience so many different cultures, customs, food, and landscapes. It’s such an amazing classroom as our programs combine adventure travel, community service learning, and cultural immersion.

How do you prepare participants before they arrive in Southeast Asia?

Every student is sent an intensive pre-departure information packet. It gives them details about travel tips, gear specifics, setting daily budgets, and additional preparation tools to help them get fully ready for their trip. On the ground, every student gets a comprehensive program booklet with a page dedicate to every days' activity, plus a local language guide, historical background, and cultural practices. Program Leaders run an intensive program briefing once all the students arrive on the ground in Bangkok, where we discuss expectations, group dynamic goals, program rules and safety tips.

Volunteers with kids in a Lantern Village in Northern Laos

Rebecca playing with local children during a 2-day trek to a Lantern village in Northern Laos.

What makes the Southeast Asia program most interesting to potential participants?

I think Southeast Asia is a big draw to our participants because it is so very different than home. What a better way to experience a new place, than with a dozen peers in similar chapters of their lives. There is so much to see in Southeast Asia, and we pretty much cover everything. The program is jam-packed with unique activities that wouldn't be possible traveling independently. We try and balance activities, challenging physical capabilities by trekking, working on giving back to the communities we visit through different service projects, and exploring the rich history of Southeast Asia by visiting sites, temples, and museums, and giving context around each countries' political, economic, and social background.

Where do most of your program participants come from?

Participants are usually from the United States, Canada, England, and other European countries. However, the program is open to gap-year students from around the world.

What is a typical day like for a participant on Pacific Discovery’s Southeast Asia program?

There's no such thing as a typical day for a Pacific Discovery group. On any given day, we could be kayaking through Halong Bay, exploring the temples at Angkor Wat, or hiking through local villages in Laos. This is what I love about leading for Pacific Discovery – every day is a new adventure which makes the whole program exciting on a daily basis.

Volunteers outside the Citadel in Hue, Vietnam

Group shot outside the Citadel in Hue, Vietnam.

How do you help participants cope with culture shock?

Pacific Discovery carefully chooses program leaders and they must have extensive previous experience in a location to guide there. Since leaders have either lived in country, or travelled there, they are already confident and comfortable on the ground, and this really puts students at ease. Students are able to embrace new cultures with an open mind and a willingness to learn about how other cultures operate. Since we are traveling as a supportive group, students find comfort with their peers as they are experiencing similar feelings when they first arrive abroad, which is a great way to cope with culture shock.

How do you ensure the safety of participants during the program?

We are always thinking about participant safety. As with any program, it is our top priority to ensure every student's personal well-being. Pacific Discovery has vetted their ground operators and only chooses the highest quality businesses. Each leader always carries a comprehensive first aid kit to every activity, and students are recommended to have personal kits on hand as well to ensure we are fully prepared at all times. Each leader is trained in First Aid/CPR, has a WFR, and often additional certifications such as Lifeguarding and EMT. Our program leader manuals have lists of local clinics, emergency evacuation alternatives, and English-speaking doctors to refer to at every location.

How does your the Southeast Asia program benefit participants?

These programs allow students to really break out of their comfort zone, face fears, accept failure, and learn about personal responsibility, which make them grow so much in just two months. As a leader, it's all about building and instilling confidence in the participants; we work a lot on team building and making sure the group is accepting of all participants with an open-mind, as well as embracing a non-judgmental attitude towards their peers, themselves, and the cultures we visit. Most students are just finishing high school, taking a break from college, or taking time off after school to figure out the next step, and it’s a great time for participants to really be themselves without any pressure, and to learn about who they are and figure out what they want to do in the future.

What are your goals for the Southeast Asia program in the future?

Southeast Asia is one of Pacific Discovery's best programs. Every trip, the PD team works on improving itineraries, and picking new locations/activities that are exciting and relevant to students.