GoAbroad Interview

Rhondine Petrof - Founder

Rhondine Petrof - Founder

Rhondine is the founder and executive director of Toucan Education Programs (TEP). She has worked with students from a variety of North American institutions, including the University of Indianapolis and Michigan State University, just to name a few. Rhondine is committed to providing successful programs that allow students to enjoy their time in Belize. She lives her passion every day by connecting innovative students and professionals with the needs of communities in Belize.

You are the founder of Toucan Education Programs, what was the impetus for forming the organization in 2010?

I became very motivated in 2010 to establish Toucan Education Programs after realizing that I have a profound love of working with international students who were studying abroad in Belize. Walking with students to realize their study abroad dreams and witnessing their transformation at the end of their term was truly rewarding for me. 

Students on Long Caye island in Belize

Graduate students and faculty from Wake Forest Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability explore Long Caye, an island in Belize

Were you always interested in a career in international education? What do you think you would be doing now if you hadn’t started Toucan Education Programs?

I strongly believe we are always in the right place at the right time. Working for a local university introduced me to a career in international education and that started my journey to realize Toucan Education Programs. I don’t think I would be in the field today without that exposure. I probably would be in the hotel or tourism industry since my background is in these two fields.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

The intentional reciprocity that happens between our students and partners. Knowing that our programs make a difference in our communities while equally changing the lives of our students is the most fulfilling aspect of my role.  

Volunteer in Belize hammering

Quest University student working with Belizean students to identify and label plants on a trail located next to the school

Your study abroad and adventure travel programs in Belize focus on hands-on learning and personalized service. Can you share more about what programs look like?

We live in a very competitive global environment, which requires real world work experience and the aptitude to embrace diverse people. Belize is a niche for hands-on learning and cultural diversity.

I want each student who chooses our programs to have an opportunity to grow exponentially.

Our program modules were engineered to address the needs of our Belizean community partners. Since those needs are dynamic, we truly map the skills and learning objectives of our participants to the needs of our Belizean partnering organizations. Our program structure involves many discussions with local partners to understand their problems and to learn how our participants can provide solutions. Toucan Education Programs then works with its interns, volunteers, or faculty directors with a group of students to consolidate and implement those solutions agreed upon by all stakeholders.

Our personalized service involves one-on-one discussions with participants to ensure they are achieving their objectives, pre-departure preparation, and continuous support in-country that addresses placement related concerns, housing, transportation, health and safety, and liaising with families and home institutions. Every program has full time support services that is personalized to meet the individual needs of our participants.

Maya chocolate farmer teaching students

Maya chocolate farmer teaches University of Florida agriculture students how the cocoa is harvested and processed to make chocolate

What do your study abroad programs offer that others do not?

Our programs offer individualized placements that equally meets our partners’ needs and your needs. We almost never advertise projects because we understand that the needs of our partners change and it’s only when we engage them on a personal level we learn how our participants can help.

What’s the most important piece of advice you give to prospective applicants?

I advise prospective applicants to strongly think about the word “low resource”; what does low resource means to you? If you want to help bridge a gap in a low resource country, then our programs are the right choice.

You grew up in Belize, what makes it such a special country for students to study abroad in?

There are many reasons Belize is a special country for students to study in. Studying in Belize affords students a platform to directly serve and improve the lives of local people, learn from its cultural and language diversity, explore its living laboratory of flora and fauna, ancient Mayan archaeology, and many marine and in-land attractions.

MSU students at the ancient Maya temple in Northern Belize

Spartans explore ancient Maya temple in northern Belize

Toucan Education Programs has been around for almost five years now, what has been your biggest accomplishment so far?

We’ve had many accomplishments over the last four plus years; however, our biggest accomplishment so far is our commitment to the Institute of International Education (IIE) Generation Study Abroad initiative to double the number of U.S. students by the end of the decade. As a commitment partner, we’ve implemented innovative ideas to help students overcome those financial barriers. We’ve established four scholarships, partnered with FundMyTravel, created a referral program, and an instalment payment plan option. We are truly proud of the steps we’ve made to help make study abroad possible for students.

What is on the horizon for Toucan Education Programs? 

Toucan Education Programs is excited about broadening its relationships with higher education institutions abroad while growing our local partnerships to expand program offerings to reach more students.