Pacific Discovery Gap Year Programs Abroad

Pacific Discovery

About

Pacific Discovery gap year, semester and summer programs are experiential education programs, suitable for high school graduates, university students and recent graduates, developed with a focus on six core components: educational travel, service learning, cultural and language immersion, sustainable adventure travel, outdoors and wilderness exploration, personal and leadership development.

By giving students responsibilities and freedom within the framework and safety of a well designed and carefully managed program, they are supported and empowered, helping them become more capable and self-reliant. These programs are pivotal experiences in our participants lives.

Pacific Discovery is an educational travel organization accredited with American Gap Association (USA)and a member of The Forum on Education Abroad (USA).

Founded
2001

Reviews

Default avatar
Grace
3/10
No, I don't recommend this program

I debated posting this review because I really, really, wanted to love my semester with Pacific Discovery this spring. That being said, I feel obligated to share my honest take on the program for prospective students, seeing as Pacific Discovery runs a competition offering $1000 to “whichever group can leave the most and best reviews across as many platforms as possible” post-program.

I applied to Pacific Discovery’s Hawaii + Western States program in July. I fell in love with the way the program is advertised to gap-year students and with the semester I thought I had signed up for. When I arrived in Hawaii, however, it quickly became clear to me that PD does not live up to their own claims or the expectations of students.

Bad - Our instructors were often unprepared to handle both the logistical and social aspects of this program. There were many times they simply were not very knowledgeable of the itinerary, and it showed. This led to us constantly being late, showing up under-prepared, putting us in dangerous situations, and wasting a lot of time which was extremely frustrating for me. They were generally ill-equipped to deal with inevitable conflict within the group, and racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments were often unaddressed entirely. Exclusion in the group quickly became a problem and although you might get words of sympathy and a few hugs from the instructors, there was no real effort to end that exclusion. I don’t entirely blame the instructors because it was very clear that they genuinely care about each student and they constantly went out of their way for us in an effort to keep the itinerary running somewhat smoothly. Rather, I blame their lack of training that they, themselves, cited often.

Bad - For the cost of the program, you might not think food would be a problem, but it is. I understand that feeding 14 is no easy task, especially in Hawaii where food is much more expensive than on the mainland. That being said, “3 meals a day” is a stretch if you ask me. One day, in particular, my “3 meals” consisted of 2 apples, 2 bananas, approximately ¼ cup of lentil curry, and 2 spoonfuls of peanut butter. Pacific Discovery makes it clear that you are in charge of purchasing your own snacks, but multiple students on the program were spending hundreds of dollars supplementing their own food, which I believe to be a bit extreme. The lack of food was a near-constant source of tension among the students and the instructors that I felt was easily avoidable.

Bad - In theory, the itinerary seems great and it is...until it isn’t. In reality, the itinerary was inconsistent and messy. We would often cycle between a state of constant go go go to absolute nothingness. One week would be structured with conservation work in the mornings and afternoon/night excursions, often accompanied by a general lack of time to adequately rest for the coming days. The next week would be comprised of sitting on the same beach for 5 or 6 hours a day. It became simultaneously exhausting and unstimulating.

Bad - Poor access to medical care, even in the USA. During week 6, I injured my foot during a rock-climbing expedition. Despite immediately notifying my instructors of the injury, I had to practically beg to be taken to urgent care the following morning. The doctor at urgent care told me I had sprained my foot and if it didn’t improve in a few days with rest and ice, that I should be seen again for an x-ray. Over the coming days, the pain continued to worsen, which I informed my instructors repeatedly. I also informed them I was having sharp pain along a surgical scar on my foot, which is cause for concern in and of itself. I was turned away multiples times when I mentioned that I wanted to have my foot x-rayed. My instructors would say “well, what do your parents think you should do?” minutes after I had hung up with my parents who told me that I either need to get an x-ray or fly home if my instructors were unwilling to take me for one. Finally, completely frustrated with my instructors, I decided to fly home. When I returned home, an orthopedic specialist confirmed a severe sprain and advised me to follow up with a foot and ankle specialist in regards to what they believe to be an avulsion fracture.

Bad - Poor communication. When I booked my flight home, my instructors assured me that they would take care of everything on HQ’s end. They also offered to drive me to the airport. 30 hours before my flight, they told me that they wouldn’t be able to take me to the airport for an unknown reason and suggested I find an Uber. A bit shocked, I began looking for Ubers, which would have cost me nearly $250, only to find out Uber was unavailable for pick-ups in the small town we were staying in at the time. My parents then had to drop what they were doing to arrange alternate transportation, which ended up being a $75 shuttle service. My dad later called HQ to complain that I was responsible for finding my own transportation to the airport at the last minute. Austin was completely shocked to hear this. Not only did she not know about the transportation issue, but HQ had no idea I was leaving the program until I was already on the plane home. She was horrified to find out I had to pay for a shuttle and kindly reimbursed my parents. Furthermore, when she spoke to my instructors about my departure, they claimed they didn’t know I was flying out of Phoenix and that taking me to the airport would be a 4 hour trip for them, which is completely untrue as I gave them all of my flight details several days in advance.

Good - The other students! I was surprised by how close we became to one another so early in the 10 weeks! We cried together, laughed together, and there were always lots of hugs to go around :) I’ve only been home for 2 weeks, but I already miss them!

Good - The conservation work! While the work was often tough, it was really rewarding! It was a great learning and growth opportunity and has already inspired me to look into the environmental clubs at my college! I loved the variety of people and projects Pacific Discovery connected us with.

While it was a great growth and reflection opportunity, I do think there are better, more well-rounded programs out there. Pacific Discovery repeatedly reminds students that they won’t rob you of discomfort on their programs but that should not be justification for the company’s flaws.

Default avatar
Davis
9/10
Yes, I recommend this program

I was prepared to go to college, prior to the pandemic. After I elected to take a gap year amid the program, I selected Pacific Discovery’s Hawaii/Western US the program for the Spring of 2021. In the words of one of my friends from the program, the trip was “what we never knew we needed.” Throughout the 70 days, we visited Hawaii, Arizona, Utah, & briefly Colorado. Trip highlights included surfing, cliff jumping, peaking Mauna Kea, mountain biking, hiking, paddle board & silk yoga, and rock climbing. Even more memorable than the activities were the service projects & cultural immersion. We learned so much about Hawaiian culture, sustainable agriculture & farming, and being aware of our personal environmental impacts. I particularly enjoyed how much control students have throughout the program. While everyday has structured activities & the instructors take the lead for most aspects of the trip, students have large roles in the decision-making processes. In particular, we meal-planned & cooked together nearly every night which was intimidating at first but soon became some of the most memorable aspects of the trip. In addition, there was a perfect amount of free time or “rest & relaxation” days to both provide days of rest for students, but also provide time for activities that weren’t on the itinerary (such as hiking, paddle boarding, zip-lining, skiing, biking, soaking in hot springs, etc). One of the best aspects of the trip was self-led week. We were given the ability to chose, for six days, what areas to visit, where to stay, what to do, meal planning & everything about the trip. For our self-led week, we were tasked with getting from Sedona, AZ to Moab, UT. For the six days we were able to visit Grand Canyon, Zion, & Durango, CO—some of the best memories of the trip. Pacific Discovery did an excellent job selecting wonderful instructors (shoutout Jon & Lucy), providing meaningful & thought-provoking weekly curriculum regarding life-applicable lessons such as environment, communication, values, humanitarianism, etc, and providing us with service projects & cultural immersion experiences that educated & inspired us (especially in Hawaii). Our group became extremely close with each other & our instructors, and the relationships I’ve created on program are some of the best aspects of this trip. If you’re reading this, and wondering whether or not to take a gap year (and if so take this trip), I would highly encourage you to. Coming from someone who wasn’t planning on taking a gap year, this was by far the highlight of my gap year, and to be honest, one of the highlights and best times of life. Jump in feet first, be prepared to get out of your comfort zone, enjoy life-changing experiences, and mature/grow immensely over the course of the trip.

What was the most nerve-racking moment and how did you overcome it?
Rock climbing & mountain biking were definitely some of the most challenging but rewarding (and slightly nerve-racking) activities in the program, but with the great support of our group, we were able to persevere & really enjoy those experiences.
Default avatar
Caroline
10/10
Yes, I recommend this program

This program allowed me to push myself to my boundaries to see what I can really do. You’ll find that you can do a lot more than you think you can if you just give it a shot. It’s also a beautiful thing to live with the same people 24/7 for 10 weeks. The deep relationships you build and the things you learn about yourself are life changing. Additionally challenging yourself to try new things and adjust on the fly really allows you to grow for the future. I learned how to cook new meals and be creative on the trip as well!

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
Learn to be comfortable with discomfort on this trip. You learn a lot about yourself by going outside your comfort zone.
Default avatar
Anna
9/10
Yes, I recommend this program

Pacific Discovery program completely exceeded my expectations in every way. Not only did I get extremely close with the people in my group, I also met many other inspiring people through conservation work and other activities. This program allowed me to push myself in ways I had never done before and when I accomplished something I felt immensely proud of myself. I was able to recenter and ground myself in my values, who I want to be, and what I want to put out into the world. I’ll never forget this experience and the people that I met on Pacific Discovery.

What was the most nerve-racking moment and how did you overcome it?
My most nerve-racking moment was right before I jumped off a 45 feet cliff into the ocean. I was so scared and had never done anything like it before. I ended up not thinking and just running off the platform without warning anyone because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
Default avatar
Emily
8/10
Yes, I recommend this program

Overall this was a fantastic experience- I loved all of my group mates and instructors to the bottom of my heart. The activities we did were amazing and always left me wanting more, and I’m leaving feeling very confident in my ability to travel on my own in the future. I did get what I wanted- I challenged myself, learned a bunch of new skills, and met super cool people along the way.

Sometimes, we did struggle with budgeting for food- it was confusing where the money was for the 3 meals a day and a lot of us ended up supplementing with our own money out of pocket. Also the itinerary wasn’t exactly what it was advertised to be- could be due to COVID alterations, but we definitely missed out on some things and had a lot of free time.

I like how much the instructors trust you, the independence you are given, and the confidence this gave me to travel in the future.

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
Expect to spend more out of pocket money than they say you will- also the packing list isn’t great, try to find one online that’s better

Programs

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Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Sophie Torres

Sophie is a recent graduate of Binghamton University, receiving her Bachelor of Science in Human Development, with a Minor in Sociology. She is currently looking to work for an organization that is a proponent of experiential learning, serving as a leader and mentor for students from diverse backgrounds. In her free time she loves practicing yoga, and being surrounded with family and friends.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose the Nepal and Tibet program because I wanted to immerse myself in cultures that I have never been exposed to before. When reading over the itinerary, everything sounded like a dream and I knew that if I embarked on this journey, my life would change for the better.

What I also liked about this program was that it included a fourteen-day trek across the Annapurna circuit and I thought it would be so cool to be embark on a trek that would challenge me both physically and mentally. I wanted to be able to look back and say, "wow this is something I was able to do", and when I finally got to experience the trek it was way more rewarding than I thought it would be. I feel very lucky to have gone on this program.

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

Pacific Discovery is very buttoned up with everything they do, which made me feel that I was in very good hands. Everything that I needed to pack was included in a well thought out gear list, which also offered suggestions as to where I could get some of the necessary items.

PD was also very good with responding to any questions about the trip. They helped every step of the way and I am very thankful for that.

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

The most important piece of advice I would give to someone going on this program would be to trust in the process! When it comes to making plans I often like to take control, because change can be difficult for me at times but on a program like this I had so much more fun when I adopted a "go-with-the-flow" attitude.

Some of the other students on my program found themselves frustrated because they wanted to know what was going to happen every step of the way, but sometimes it's nice to let things surprise you, because you never know what amazing experiences you might have as a result!

The trip goes by so fast, so why waste any second of it worrying about what you're doing next.

What did you learn about yourself from taking part in this program?

I learned that I am capable of far much more than I give myself credit for. On this trip I trekked up to about 17,000 feet, I got up on stage during a cultural dance performance, and I lived with a Nepali family for ten days without speaking English.

What is so special about going on a program like this is that it forces you to reveal your true self.

Makeup and other materialistic things fade to the background and the focus becomes what lies in your heart and soul. What I discovered is that I am brave, compassionate and ready to experience more of the what the world has to offer.

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

It's difficult to say what an average day/week would look like on this program because we were constantly doing different things! I would say, however, that when we were on the trek for two weeks, we got up at very similar times and would begin trekking to the next destination, stopping to get lunch in between.

It never felt monotonous though because the Annapurna circuit has such an eclectic mix of landscapes, the scenery we experienced each day had its own unique beauty.

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?

My biggest fear before embarking on this journey was the plane ride. I have been to many places (including Greece), but Nepal and Tibet are the farthest I have ever been from home. I am not afraid of being on planes, however I was nervous that I would get anxious or not know what to do with myself.

As soon as I sat down on the plane I realized that it wasn't going to be as bad as I had originally thought. In fact I had plenty of movies to watch, and I was actually starting to get excited about what I was about to experience. I think that I will definitely keep this positive perspective with me for future plane rides.

Staff Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with program leaders.

Sophia Allen

Job Title
Program Instructor
Sophia grew up in the lush Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Attending an adventure camp throughout her childhood instilled within her a strong desire to provide others with the same special experiences in the outdoors. After completing a bachelors in Outdoor Education, Sophia went on to coordinate and implement expeditions and educational activities across the North America, South America, Southeast Asia, and Oceania for a wide range of demographics and backgrounds.

What is your favorite travel memory?

When I roadtripped across Texas with my sister in a big white van. I was directing a course near Big Bend National Park, and my teams needed a van and a trailer full of gear transported to them from the east coast. My older sister decided to join me for the journey and it has become one of our most memorable experiences. We explored hidden waterfalls in the desert and at night were amazed by the countless stars in the sky. We had hours of quality time to talk and speak of our dreams for the future as we traveled across the bizarre landscape of Texas. From Big Bend to the Guadeloupe Mountains, and El Paso where we said our goodbyes. Camping and Roadtripping are always a special way to share an adventure. I think that’s why I like the style of Pacific Discovery programs so much. It is the slower way of seeing all the beauty along the way and the adventures that spring up on the road.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

I had worked in a lot of different settings before Pacific Discovery, but I had never worked a seventy day shift before with one team. It was an extraordinary learning experience to empower and support students over an extended length of time. The rewards are immense in the sense that you are sharing an incredible journey with them and you get to see all ways that everyone including yourself grows from the experience. I personally learned a lot about adjusting my leadership style according to the skill set of a team. Throughout the course, the students were becoming more and more independent which required me to use discernment in the ways that I stepped back in order to give them opportunities to lead themselves autonomously.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

One of my students wrote a lovely blog about volunteering alongside an elderly woman who was once a world class surfer.

Please enjoy below:
“We have arrived in New Zealand! Wahoo! Our first stop was the Tawharanui park and campground. Riddled with sheep, cows and plenty of birds, including the endangered Takahe, we awoke each morning to a symphony of moos, baas and indescribable birds tweets.
Throughout the week, directed by park rangers Morris and Amy, we “tickled” trails to create easier walking paths, planted trees with retired volunteers and took advantage of our surroundings by exploring the park, jumping in the ocean, and watching the sunrise over the rolling hills.
My personal favorite moment of the week was talking to Gale, one of the retired volunteers, while we bagged some young trees. Gale was the New Zealand woman’s surfing champion in 1969 and represented her country at the world championships in Australia the next year. As an aspiring surfer bum myself, I was eager to learn anything I could from her. Though I expected her to discuss the nitty gritty mechanics of surfing and how to dominate waves, she spoke of it as if it was still just a fun hobby. She wasn’t concerned with being the best surfer in the water. She just loved the ocean and riding the waves, both surfing and bodysurfing. As someone who gets in their own head about perfecting every single detail of riding waves, it was refreshing and calming to hear how to dominate surfing: chill out.”

-Sam L

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

Toughest question yet! All of the locations are exciting and beautiful. I am a bit biassed for the Australia and New Zealand Course though. You can’t beat the activities such as canyoneering through the Blue Mountains, surfing the beautiful waves of Australia, and rafting the highest navigable waterfall in the world! The volunteer opportunities are also interesting and enriching. We work with the local park service to fight invasive species, learn how to maintain trails in New Zealand, and live on a beautiful permaculture farm South of Sydney for a week. It is a marvelous course and I highly recommend it, but all programs at Pacific Discovery have something special and different to offer for everyone.

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

Pacific Discovery is different in the sense that the program is designed to empower you to become an independent ethical traveler. The adventures are outstanding and there are a lot of other companies that could simply take you sightseeing, but Pacific Discovery provides an educational viewpoint on each region and has an excellent curriculum to help you reflect on your gap year. One of the moments I was most proud of my team is when they designed their own itinerary for their student led section of their program. It was amazing to see everyone collaborating and creating a wonderful experience traveling across New Zealand. They did an excellent job and it was great to see how comfortable they had become with trip logistics and designing an adventure. I hope they utilize those skills in the future so that they can continue to explore the world outside of the course.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

How companies treat their employees always speaks volumes to me. Companies that place value in everyone on the team have a much better atmosphere that people want to be around and a part of. It is an incredibly feeling to work for a company that is such a team player. Even though we are spread out all over the world on course, everyone knows that they are a part of something wonderful and meaningful and it connects us. From the local vendors and guides that conduct our adventure activities to the folks in the office that make sure our logistics are running smoothly we are all focused on giving students the best experience possible.

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