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Chris Stakich of Rustic Pathways discusses philanthropic travel

Chris Stakich

Photo: Rustic Pathways Chris Stakich

Passion for student travel sparked early for Chris Stakich, CEO of Rustic Pathways, a global facilitator of educational travel experiences and services. Stakich was president of a community service organization, worked for United Way and helped build a hospital in the Dominican Republic — all before graduating high school.

After graduating from Harvard University in 2001, he began to serve Rustic Pathways and has since helped the Chardon, Ohio-based organization grow more than 40 times in size. He also co-founded Thinking Beyond Borders and USA Gap Year Fairs, and helped launch Thrival World Academies.

Student Group Tour magazine associate editor Cortney Erndt sat down with Stakich to discuss philanthropic travel and his student travel perspectives.

Q. Which country do you recommend every student visit?

A. This year, there is no better place to travel than Burma. Historically, Burma has operated under a horrible military dictatorship, with black zones that prevent visitors and information sharing. Over the past couple years, the country has seen unprecedented changes and it’s amazing to meet the people in the far corners of the country. Burma is one of the most beautiful countries in all of Southeast Asia, and it is still largely undeveloped. Visit when you can!

Q. What is the key to developing philanthropic leaders?

Summer Camp Leadership program, Rustic Pathways, Costa Rica

Photo: Rustic Pathways Summer Camp Leadership program, Rustic Pathways, Costa Rica

A. Rustic Pathways provides students with hands-on learning experiences. This allows them to develop an understanding of different cultures and offers a new perspective on complex global issues.

Eighty percent of Rustic Pathways’ programs involve a service element. Giving back to the communities that students visit really helps build a broader understanding of the culture and community.

Rustic Pathways operates in more than 20 countries, but we are open to customizing trips for educators in any destination. In order to offer students a genuine destination experience, they are more likely to travel via ox cart and sleep in a yurt, rather than ride a bus or stay in a hotel.

Q. How are students transformed through Rustic Pathways?

A. So many students are transformed, but one stands out to me. Sam Stevens of St. Louis traveled to New Orleans in 2007 on our Rebuilding New Orleans program. He worked on reconstruction efforts, and explored the city’s local culture and flavor.

Marine Service and Adventure program, Rustic Pathways, Fiji

Photo: Rustic Pathways Marine Service and Adventure program, Rustic Pathways, Fiji

After coming back home, Stevens became involved with initiatives in his hometown. He received a service scholarship from Tulane University and returned to New Orleans the following year to begin his undergraduate studies. While a college student, Stevens became heavily involved in the rebuilding scene and worked at the St. Bernard Project. After finishing his undergraduate studies, he became site manager for a few of the projects that partnered with Rustic Pathways.

He recently earned a master’s from Tulane’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy. While earning his degree, he worked for a disaster recovery consulting firm reconciling damages from Hurricane Katrina to state-owned buildings. Now, he is a program manager for Youth Rebuilding New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that rebuilds homes for locally displaced teachers. Stevens would say his Rustic Pathways program sparked the beginning of a career.

Q. How can educators help students like Sam Stevens prepare for a life-changing trip?

A. Focus curriculum on the country’s history and cultural norms, or traditions that differ from their own. Providing students with time to reflect and journal about their expectations for the experience — why they chose to participate, what they are hoping to gain from it or what they think will be most challenging — can help students prepare mentally and emotionally for their trip.

For more information, call 800-321-4353 or visit


About Author

Cortney Erndt, Associate Editor

Cortney Erndt oversees Student Group Tour magazine and contributes to all Group Tour Media publications, online and in print. She has an affinity for adventure travel; find her on a sky ledge — maybe sky diving — and reporting on it. Her favorite destinations connect cityscapes with captivating culture and good coffee.