Alumni Spotlight: Sasha Howes

I'm a fourth year Biological Engineering major from Virginia Tech. I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina with parents teaching me the value of curiosity and adventure, and it has bled into my adult life. I love traveling, trying new things, outdoor adventure, and working hard! This past year and a half I have been to 17 countries and still want to visit more.

Why did you pick this program?

Sasha: I wanted to travel Thailand as a solo traveller originally but after the coup in 2013, I was hesitant of being a single woman traveling alone. I picked Pacific Discovery because my sister had gone on the New Zealand program with them and it was an amazing blend of education, volunteering, adventure travel, and cultural events. The month-long timeframe also gave students a chance to absorb the culture the most compared to other programs.

What is the most important thing you learned abroad?

Sasha: Flexibility and the ability to fail. Trying to read maps in languages I do not understand, ordering food that is outrageously spicy, and showering in cold showers after long days of work outside are some of my favorite parts of traveling in Thailand. If you expect everything to be the same from what is normal to you, why should you pay to travel? Be flexible and you can enjoy your experience more. This is the first time I had done many of these things so of course I was going to fail at things and learning to laugh at myself let me keep the fun even if I was embarrassed.

What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?

Sasha: GO. The only thing you should have to think about is where. By stepping outside the USA you can see how small our vision of the world is. Traveling abroad gives you the opportunity to learn and grow in ways you never anticipated because you may never have been given the chance. It dramatically improved my self confidence, my stress levels in school, and let me learn that I can achieve anything by just putting forth the effort. Do not be afraid to take the plunge: choose a program that makes you so excited you cannot sleep at night, not one that is only safe or cheap. Choose a country that you want to understand, not one that is easy to maneuver. It makes the experience better.

What made this experience unique and special?

Sasha: Thailand is a country that is vibrant: the colors, the flavors, the humidity...the entire region gets inside your head and you simply cannot take it all in properly. The program gave us so many opportunities to experience new things. There were so many unique parts of the program: volunteering with elephants, talking with monks, a Buddhist meditation retreat, exploring Bangkok via tuk-tuk....I think the culmination of all of these new and challenging parts made the overall trip very special compared to many other programs, where many of the opportunities are similar to each other.

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

Sasha: Pack less. You will be carrying everything with you, checking your bags, collecting souvenirs, trying to fit backpacks in song tows (a truck used as a taxi in Chiang Mai). I backpacked with a carry on size backpack for 9 weeks including this program and was perfectly fine with the 2 pants, 2 shorts, 4 shirts and 1 dress I brought. Pack less from home and bring more back: leave space for your memories, souvenirs, and your journal! Write in a journal about what you did that day. It is amazing to look back at my daily excursions and my feelings about them.