Alumni Spotlight: Keli Kuwahara

Keli is a small town island girl born and raised in Hawaii, on the beautiful island of Maui. She is a traveling photographer/cinematographer who has a love for adventure, and lives for experiencing, learning, and immersing herself in as many cultures and countries as possible.

Keli is a small town island girl born and raised in Hawaii, on the beautiful island of Maui. She is a traveling photographer/cinematographer who has a love for adventure, and lives for experiencing, learning, and immersing herself in as many cultures and countries as possible.

Why did you choose this program?

Arches in Antigua, Guatemala

The calling to travel, volunteer, learn and experience a new culture in a country I knew nothing about was too strong for me to not join in. The variety of programs, great reviews, and at such an economical price in comparison to similar programs made Maximo Nivel an opportunity I couldn't turn down.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

Maximo Nivel made organizing my volunteer trip SO simple. They recommended everything from how to get the cheapest flights, where to get travel insurance, background checks etc.

They handled all the connections from the moment I signed up online, to the moment I arrived in country and was picked up and taken to my homestay.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

The one piece of advice I'd want to tell anyone who is considering volunteering overseas is to leave any and all expectations you may have at home. As soon as you land in country, keep an open mind with each interaction you have with someone, and with any situation you are in.

Staying positive, living in the moment and keeping an open mind will allow you to have the most amazing experience possible.

Also, don't wait for tomorrow to do anything. If you have the opportunity to try something new or check something out with the people you met that day, do it! Time flies and you'll want to make the most of each moment of each day with the people who surround you.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

An average day consisted of waking up to breakfast prepared for me (totally awesome), then heading out to placement. Practicing Spanish, learning as much as possible about the culture and country and also getting to personally know the people at placement.

After placement, the other volunteers and I were always super hungry and would try somewhere new everyday. Food in Antigua is amazing and super economical. Between then and dinner time was just free time to sight see with friends and hang out.

There are endless things to do in Antigua which is one of the reasons why I fell in love with this place. Nights are always fun, and one thing about volunteer life is that there is always something to do, with tons of friends to do it with. Even though you may be traveling solo, it's almost impossible to feel lonely with so many friends around.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?

Being a solo female traveler, there is always a slight jitter in your belly when entering a foreign country for the first time. My advice is just to be smart about your choices. Use common sense, follow the good vibes, listen to your gut feelings, and always be aware of your surroundings.

Never get too comfortable to the point that you forget that certain behaviors and acceptable norms may be different than home. Walk with a purpose, walk with confidence, stick with groups of friends.

Never let fear take over you and allow you to pass up experiences, just be smart about whatever it is you are doing and you'll be just fine.

What was most meaningful to you about your volunteer experience?

Dancing in the streets of Antigua

I get teary eyed thinking about how I am going to answer this question, because my life has changed in so many amazing ways because of this experience. I've learned so much about myself through this experience, and so much light has been brought into my perception of our world and the people in our world.

I chose the program most out of my comfort zone because I wanted to try something new. I spend my life working behind cameras and computers and technology, and I chose to volunteer in the coffee fields and try some physical labor for once in my life.

It was definitely challenging at times, the hiking, the hauling firewood, the hoeing compost, and other days it was more mellow and I learned so much about coffee from how to pick coffee, to sorting beans, to roasting and packaging. It was always very rewarding to see the pounds of coffee beans we put out in a day, and no matter how hard the work in the fields was, the beauty of our surroundings made it all worth it. Absolutely breathtaking views.

From choosing a program so far out of my comfort zone, I learned I am capable or so much more than I thought.

I learned I'm not so bad at things I thought I would be, and I'm also pretty terrible at things I thought would come easily. Not only did I learn a new language, culture and work life, but I learned a lot about myself daily.

The most meaningful part of my volunteer experience was that I was blessed to meet and connect with countless people from all over the world. I've never met so many people of different nationalities, ages and personalities before, and I absolutely loved it. I didn't expect to bond so tightly with people, but it happened time and time again.

It's amazing how someone who is a complete stranger one morning, becomes a life long friend even after such a short period of time. Its hard to explain, but I think all travelers have some kind of instant underlying bond when they first meet. When you go on trips with these people, experience things for the first time with them, there's a more permanent bond that's created.

Goodbyes happened so often as people traveled in and out, and it never got easier. In fact, for me it was harder each time to say goodbye to someone you spent some of the best adventures of your life with, and its uncertain if you will ever see them again.

My advice is to enjoy each moment you have with the people around you, whatever you may be doing, and take tons of photos! Each person I've connected with here has added something new and special to my life, and I am definitely not the same person I was before my volunteer experience. Through it all and through all the friends I've made, I feel like I'm becoming a better version of myself each day, and I'd love for everyone to feel that way as well.

If you have the opportunity to volunteer abroad, DO IT! You will be super stoked you did, and I have a feeling it'll be an adventure of a lifetime for you.