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.