Alumni Spotlight: Brandi Gongaware


Brandi is a Graduate student earning her Master's in Public Policy Management at the University of Pittsburgh - where she also works full time in Admissions. She lives in the city with her husband, two dogs and two cats.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose this program because it fit best into my schedule. Working at a university, I'm lucky enough to have time off during winter break but it's only about ten days. This was the only program I found that was within my budget and met my time constraints.

After weeks of further research, I felt comfortable with this organization based on the many positive reviews from past participants and the noticeable level of support they offered on the ground.

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

Before I even left home, I had a program manager who was available to answer all of my questions and prepare me for my arrival. We emailed and even spoke on the phone when necessary.

The Holiday Experience was unique in a way that we had a coordinator with us during our volunteer placements. We were essentially in a cohort that traveled together, worked together, and came back to the organization home base together. It was comfortable being with the same people each day and knowing that a coordinator would always be with you during your placement.

The only things I organized on my own were dinners and activities outside of my placement. I never felt like I was "on my own" though because if I needed suggestions – there was always someone there to help.

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

Be conscious of your limitations. I have incredibly awful asthma and didn’t consider the difference in air quality and elevation compared to where I live.

Luckily, I came prepared with my medication and forced myself to work at my own pace. I also made sure my coordinators were aware of my condition so we were all on the same page. Despite this, I was still able to do most of the work and had an amazing time.

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

There’s nothing average about the Holiday Experience! You’re given an idea of where you may or may not go during orientation but things can change. The placements may not be able to have us come for whatever reason but the coordinators will always find somewhere for the group to go.

Our days typically began at 7:30 am meeting at the organization’s base where we were given a two to four page information packet about our placement. It provided vital information for us to follow while there. We then would all ride together in a shuttle (just our little cohort and coordinator) to the placement. We would stay for four hours or so then ride back to the organization’s base.

The rest of the day was free to enjoy activities that were provided like dance lessons or peer-to-peer language lessons or to do your own exploration.

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

I left home knowing how to say only a few basic words and phrases in Spanish and was terrified at offending the local people. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was to come into someone’s home and not know how to communicate with them. I downloaded a few language applications to my phone that would work even if offline and tried my best.

My pronunciations were awful I’m sure but I could tell that it was appreciated when I at least made the effort to try. The best part is when I came home, I was telling a story about my trip and the first thing they said was that my pronunciations and accent were “really good!”

While I still am not fluent at all, the organization offers online Spanish classes that I plan on participating in so I can learn even more.

What surprised you most about this experience?

One thing I was not prepared for is how emotional the goodbye would be. I was only there one week and one of the kids I worked with asked if I was coming back the following Monday. I told him I wasn’t as nicely as I could. He responded with, “…but when?”

It broke my heart knowing that this would most likely be the last time I would see him. I didn’t think it was possible to build bonds so quickly. Being home, I still think of the children I worked with and miss them.

The happy part about this is that this experience only makes me want to continue my experience like this; internationally and domestically. It’s lit a fire that I never want to extinguish.