Work Abroad as a International Program Leader

By  Stacey Williams (sponsored content)

It’s not just about the thrill of travel. Running programs for gap year and study abroad organizations requires long hours and a lot of work. Pacific Discovery weighs in on what this dream job is really like.

It’s five a.m. and 25-year-old Lou Henderson is already out of bed. Bustling about the kitchen of the wooden farmhouse that sits below a pasture of grazing sheep on New Zealand’s North Island, Lou sets out breakfast for the 12 students who are still soundly asleep. The sound of waves crashing is the perfect backdrop to her morning routine. They remind her why she’s up so early. “If we get breakfast out now, there’s time to catch a few waves before the students meet us for morning yoga,” she tells me with a grin.

This morning, she’ll surf with Ben, an 11-year-old whose dad manages the Department of Conservation land where her group is planting trees as a part of a native bush restoration project. Next semester, she’ll journey onward to teach a program amidst the soaring peaks of Tibet and Nepal. Exploring incredible places—from high mountain trails to limestone cliffs on the coast—is just one of the perks of the job. Lou says that what she loves most is returning to a project site across multiple seasons. “You really feel like you get to know a place,” she explains. Lou and her co-instructors frequently tag their Instagram posts #bestjobever.

As an instructor, you wear a lot of hats

When running a program, you’re the group’s guide, mentor, resident director, teacher, nurse, counsellor, and sometimes even the "Energizer Bunny." There is no formal time off during the 10-week semester programs; as an instructor, you are the point-person for any problem—morning or night. With health concerns and risk management responsibilities, the stakes are high as health and safety is paramount to the role. In spite of the demands though, Lou and her co-instructors frequently tag their Instagram posts #bestjobever. After all, they’re getting paid to travel!

Am I really getting paid for this?

Whether it’s building houses in rural Cambodia or meeting with indigenous groups in the highlands of Peru; gaining hard skills in a new adventure sport like rock climbing or sea kayaking; or learning about international development and NGOs, instructors experience everything that a program entails, right alongside their students. But the real payoff is the fulfilment that comes from impacting students’ lives.

You participate in a transformative experience

For Lou, the best part of the job is the relationships she forms with her students. One of Lou’s former students says, “The experiences, memories, and lessons from my time with Pacific Discovery gave me a clear sense of direction. I still get comments from friends about how I now have a drive in everything that I do and an excitement for even small things. On this program, I found myself.” 

With so many shared experiences and the deep and personal role of a mentor, instructors enjoy the reward of seeing people realize their potential and passions. Students often leave their gap year with this greater sense of personal values, identity, and place. Instructors leave knowing that they played a part in this process.

Asked what advice she’d give to people who want to become a program leader, Lou laughs. “Just make sure you know what you’re signing up for.”

For a taste of what it would like to be a program leader, apply to join Pacific Discovery this summer for a five-week Educator Foundations course through Southeast Asia.

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