Alumni Spotlight: Emily Gilford


Emily is a Zoology student living in England. She is currently studying at the University of Exeter at the Cornwall campus. An avid bird watcher and naturalist, Emily hopes to become a researcher and help to better understand the cognition and behavior of bears in captivity and in the wild.

Why did you choose this program?

I love animals – specifically bears, and this program really fits with what I want to do in the future. Working in one of the biggest bear sanctuaries in the world is not an opportunity that I would pass up. The reviews were excellent, and the program offered added extras which was nice, especially as I was looking at staying for long.

I'm very passionate about animal welfare, and I would never take part in any activity that put the wellbeing of any animal at risk. This project is run at a sanctuary which is supported by World Animal Protection, among many other welfare organizations, so I knew that both myself and the bears, would be in good hands/paws.

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

Oyster Worldwide, the provider, pretty much covered everything for me. They give you the option if you want help with booking flights and sorting out travel insurance. Though I didn't utilize this help (as I have traveled frequently before), it's very useful for inexperienced or younger travelers. The communication with the Oyster Worldwide team before my trip was excellent. There were phone calls from the Destination Manager and a pre-trip information pack and advice on the website. I felt truly prepared for my arrival in Romania.

Once I got there, the same applied! Most of the hard graft was done for me. Transport from the airport in Bucharest to the volunteer apartment in Brasov was all arranged (and if you'd rather stay in a hotel, they could arrange that for you too). Transport to two local castles were arranged for me (two castle trips, on the first and second weekends of my stay), transport to and from the sanctuary, and transport back to Bucharest on my departure.

Tours were arranged at the sanctuary each week. We could go around and help the guides, or just listen to the interesting facts and stories that they had about the bears. Once a week, we also had a feeding tour. I won't ruin that for any prospective bear volunteers – that's just too good to just talk about, you really have to see it for yourself!

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

Get stuck in – and don't pack loads of clothes! Yes, you'll get messy, but there's a washing machine, and it'll become your new best friend. Some volunteers even leave t-shirts and other kits behind when they leave, so if you forget something then it's not an issue! Especially rubber gloves. Make sure you pack good quality, and a fair few pairs. There's always spares at the sanctuary if there's a problem!

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

Early mornings during the week. A 35 to 40-minute drive to the bear sanctuary, and then a 10-minute walk up to the main building.

Expect most days to be about food preparation. This is by far the most important job you will do. The bears need feeding, and you are like their chefs. Sorting out the meat, dairy, fruit, and veggies will be something you'll do a lot, but it's really fun, especially if you're with a nice group of other volunteers.

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 was really worried about living with people that I didn't know, but my 'volunteer family' were all in the same position as me, and we got along so well! When new people came to start their volunteering experiences, we all grouped together and welcomed them with a lovely welcome meal. Oyster arranged this every time new people arrived, and I really felt like our Oyster representative, Razvan, was part of our volunteer family.

What is one thing you would have done differently?

I would have loved to explore the country more while I was visiting Romania. The Oyster program offers you a taste of Romanian culture by visiting castles, and I wish I'd stayed out there a little longer to embrace a bit more of Transylvania! I definitely wouldn't want that to eat into my time with the bears though, so that would be something I would do outside of the program.