Alumni Spotlight: Ayla Oden


Hello! I'm currently a student at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. I'm pursuing a Bachelors degree in communications with a focus in advertising and a minor in English. For me home is the one and only New Orleans where jazz and crawfish are normal part of your day. I love traveling, swimming, and reading murder mysteries.

Why did you pick this program?

I chose to do the Thailand Summer Special through Volunteering Solutions because, after a lot of research, they seemed to offer the best deal for my dollar. While not only focusing on making an impact volunteering, Vol Sol gave me a chance to really experience the culture and scenery that Thailand offers. This particular program offered a wide variety of volunteering as well. In three weeks, I was able to do childcare, teaching, and help out at an elephant reservation. Each experience was different but just as rewarding.

What do you wish someone had told you before you went abroad?

Definitely research a place before going! As for Thailand, many parts of the country is very conservative so it was definitely important to dress respectably to their standards. Also, many temples and other tourist spots required dress codes to cover pants and shoulders. Just make sure you pack appropriately for not only the weather but also the culture!

What is the most important thing you learned abroad?

I definitely became more confident in myself as a traveler. While I had explored overseas before, it had always been with my family. Getting the chance to prove to my parents and myself that I could handle being on my own really gave me the confidence that I could do it again. If you always for someone to go with you on your travels, you'll end up missing out on once in a lifetime experiences. Learning to be more independent and travel not only smart but safe is a very important lesson for any globetrotter.

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

Just go for it! So many of my friends get too nervous about heading off alone or going to a country that may not have all the Western accommodations they're used to. I know that if they just tried, they would fall in love. There's so much more to this world than just your hometown, no matter how much you are in love with it. Take a couple of chances because in my experiences, I've never regretted it!

What was the hardest part about going abroad?

The hardest part about going abroad was definitely the language barrier. However, people were still just as helpful even if it took a bit longer to translate what I was trying to say. Especially when you're traveling alone, it's very important to carry a phrase book. This saved me a lot of times whether I was asking for decorations or ordering from a local restaurant.

What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?

The elephant village was probably the neatest thing I have ever experienced. Just outside of Surin, Thailand, sits the cutest little village where elephants simply roam from home to home. Sitting on top of an elephant reserve, the people of this village made saving the elephants their main purpose in life.

While we were there at the village, the other volunteers and I got the chance to help plant the food for the elephants and then feed, wash, and even walk the elephants. The best part of the elephant village? Volunteers get to swim with the elephants! And it's even considered volunteer "work."

What made this experience unique and special?

Elephants are such and incredible and gentle animal that people almost instantly fall in love with them. Although their nonviolent nature, elephants are endangered due to agriculture taking over their environment. Little villages like the one I visited make a huge impact in elephant conservation. Without these places, we might no longer get the chance to interact with these animals.

Tell us about an experience you had that you could not have had at home.

In Bangkok during our first week of the volunteer program, our group was given the chance to teach at one of the local schools. However, this was not any school. This school shared its schoolyard with the famous temple Wat Pho, home of the Reclining Buddha.

This popular tourist spot features the giant golden statue of the Buddhist idol and is visited by thousands daily. However, most tourists don't get the chance to see the school and interact with the children there. Each of those children was so eager to learn and interact with us that it was such a refreshing change from home.

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

This program offers many opportunities for further traveling. While I was in Surin, I took a weekend and went to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Many other people I know chose to go island hopping after the trip to famous beaches like Phuket and Krabi. If you go on a program like this, don't be afraid to plan some traveling of your own afterward. When the program ended, none of us were ready to go home and those that didn't have anything planned were almost bummed to be leaving.

What made this trip meaningful to you, or how did this trip change your perceptions or future path?

This trip just gave me an even bigger case of Wanderlust. I can't stop myself from getting online and searching for new places to go volunteer. I no longer feel like I have to wait on someone to go with me. Traveling is a wonderful thing to share with someone but it is also just as wonderful of a thing to experience on your own. I won't hesitate to volunteer abroad again!

What can you not leave Thailand without doing?

I'll give you three things you absolutely have to experience if you decide to go to Thailand. 1. See a ladyboy show. This cabaret show, while absurd, is a huge part of Thai culture. 2. Eat Pad Thai. Lots of it. Especially eat it from every night market vendor you find. Market food is almost always better than the restaurants, believe me.

And 3. Travel by Tuk Tuk. After learning about the cheapest transportation on 4 wheels, you'll never want to use a cab again. Tuk-tuks are by far the fastest way to get around Bangkok and are the most fun way to sightsee all of those small towns. There're so many more things I could list, but those are my top 3!