Our Story

Since its inception in 2001, Pacific Discovery has taken more than 2,000 students and many faculty-led groups on our experiential journeys. We value our incredible team of experienced, qualified and passionate Program Instructors. We have an excellent safety record, comprehensive safety management systems and a database of alumni, parents, advisers and faculty, who are happy to be contacted by you, to discuss their experience.

Pacific Discovery has undergone independent safety accreditations with Gap Year Association (USA), Year Out Group (UK), and OutdoorsMark (NZ).

Our summer, semester, and gap year programs are grounded in the philosophy of experiential education, where learning is facilitated and hands-on. Our programs are overland journeys, blending cultural immersion, personal and leadership development, volunteer and community service projects, experiential education, wilderness exploration and optional transferable academic credit. Our Mission is to offer the world’s best experiential programs - providing insights into our increasingly global society, developing empathy for other cultures, furthering understanding of international issues, heightening appreciation for the earth’s wild places, and assisting you to stretch and grow.

Kiwi’s Rachel Sanson and Scott Burnett, founded Pacific Discovery in 2001, utilizing experience gained through working in environmental and outdoor education, teaching, tourism, grass-roots community development and extensive travels. From the start the focus was offering deeply meaningful programs where students would gain new insights and ways of thinking about our world, through educational journeys. These journeys were ethically sound, ensured a positive outcome for host communities, and a lower impact on the environment. Initially based in Oregon, they relocated Pacific Discovery's home to New Zealand in 2005 to raise family.

In 2018 the reins were handed to another kiwi, Zach Johnston. Alongside continued input from Rachel and Scott, Zach’s varied educational and leadership experience made him the perfect person to continue the focus on authentic and inspiring international travel. As a Senior Instructor in Leadership Development, General Manager in the Tourism Industry, Field Based Outdoor Educator, International Expedition Leader, and Operational Ambulance Officer with extensive travel experience around the world, his input into program development and commitment to consistency of service is apparent.

Today, Pacific Discovery runs 25+ programs annually. We continue to be a small and personal organization that strives to offer authentic, inspiring and pivotal experiences. As an organisation, we remain passionately and personally involved in all aspects of the program, from answering phone and email enquiries, to researching, developing and evaluating programs. We even manage to get out and lead programs from time to time. This means you have a very personalized experience and can trust that we are always focused on providing you with an inspiring and safe journey with Pacific Discovery.

The Story Behind Our Name


When Scott and Rachel created Pacific Discovery, they were two young New Zealanders living in the United States. They were very conscious of the vast ocean between our old and new homes.

Covering 1/3 of the earth’s surface and larger than the entire combined land areas, the Pacific Ocean was named the ‘peaceful ocean’ by Spanish explorer Magellan during a voyage of discovery and the first circumnavigation of our planet in 1521.

Polynesian seafarers had earlier undertaken some of humanity’s greatest journeys of discovery over the 2,500 years preceding Magellan, as they gradually explored and settled the Pacific Ocean, voyaging from Asia to South America, to New Zealand and to Hawaii.

Magellan's voyage was an important early step in an accelerating process of making us aware of ‘our world’, a process that today is of critical importance as we stretch the capacity of our planet to provide for us all.

The name Pacific Discovery celebrates these early journeys of discovery and celebrates the journeys of discovery that our students undertake on our programs, as they deepen their understanding of our world, their understanding of themselves, and understanding the perspectives of others.

Our students undertake a Pacific (peaceful) Discovery - treading lightly on our world, learning the perspectives of others, and in the process becoming a force for peace and humanity.

Our logo incorporates a blue circle representing the Pacific Ocean. Inside this is the silhouette of two of our students. They are looking out from a peak. We love their embrace of the view and an openness to the world in all its richness, beauty and fragility. This moment encapsulates what our programs are all about.

Our Difference

Goals - The focus of our programs is assisting students to become more confident, capable and self-reliant, empathetic, environmentally aware, and develop a global perspective. We endeavor to do this without telling students what to think or do. Instead by taking students out of familiar surrounds, putting them in challenging situations and exposing them to different ideas about the world, and through the hands-on nature of the program, and the shared perspective of the entire group, students will be supported to grow and develop along their own unique path.

Passion - Our HQ of Pacific Discovery are intimately involved in the day-to-day operations. We believe that our enthusiasm for what we do results in a more powerful, professional and personalized program experience for each student.

Integrity - We have personally researched, and work directly with, every accommodation, activity and transport provider, as well as every community and service project our groups undertake. These personal relationships result in surety of the program experience for our students and a better outcome, as local providers value the ongoing relationship they have with us and we reduce the barriers to communication and feedback.

Personalized - We work with each student and family to ensure students gain as much as they can from their program experience.
Program Design - Our programs are meticulously researched, designed and each program departure is a very special and unique experience. Learn more about Program Design.

A Journey - Each of our programs is a deliberate journey of discovery and the various program experiences link and flow together incredibly well.

Duration - Our semester programs are 10 weeks duration - two weeks shorter than a standard 12 week academic semester. Our reasoning for this is that we fit a lot into our programs and meet our programming objectives in 10 weeks. We feel that a longer duration is not necessary and does not meaningfully alter the depth of experience or learning gained from our programs. An additional benefit is that students have time to do their own independent experience or travel at the end of the program, building on skills they have developed during the program.

Structure - Some organizations advertise a sample itinerary and then have their Program Instructors make the arrangements just before, or even during the program. We expect our Program Instructors to focus on the students’ educational journey during the program and not be distracted by logistics. We make the majority of program arrangements and payments ahead of time so that the group are able to complete the scheduled itinerary and so that the instructors can focus their attention upon their group.

Safety - We have an exemplary safety record, and student welfare is our core focus. We have personally visited, assessed and maintain an ongoing relationship with every service project, activity, accommodation and transport provider that we use. Our Program Instructors are trained in safety assessment and management. We also teach and empower our students to assess and manage risk, so they take on some personal responsibility for decisions around their safety during the program. Learn more about our Safety and Risk Management protocols.

Accreditation - Pacific Discovery holds Gap Year Association (GYA) accreditation. This is a rigorous and comprehensive accreditation of all aspects of an organizations operation from safety management, to programming, to assessing the validity and worth of service learning projects. Read more about our Accreditation.
Program Instructors - We employ experienced professional Program Instructors who have great people skills, extensive in-country experience and wilderness first responder (WFR) first aid qualifications. Their role is 50% leadership, logistics, and managing healthy group dynamics, and 50% teasing learning out of experiences and individually mentoring each student They are vested in ensuring the best possible program experience for each student. Meet our team.

Students - We treat our students as adults and encourage personal responsibility. We have high expectations of our students and provide them with the knowledge and the skills to gain as much as possible from the program and to safely pursue their personal goals within the larger structure of the program.

Breaking Down Barriers - We reduce the hierarchy so that communication between students and instructors is open, trusting and easy. Our Program Instructors do everything that the students do, not keeping themselves separate from the group. Instructors form a big brother/sister relationship with students. This results in better mentoring of each student, better group dynamics, and more openness, trust, and communication within the group.

Supportive Group Dynamics - Students are often surprised at how closely bonded they become with their group mates, how supported they feel, and how powerful this aspect of our programs is. This doesn’t happen magically and everyone on a program contributes to creating great group dynamics and facilitating this is a key focus for our Program Instructors.

Quality of Experience - We continually refine and improve our programs. At program conclusion we do a thorough evaluation of all program elements, incorporating suggestions from our students, families, program instructors and local colleagues into future programs.

Affordability - Our focus is on offering incredible programs, not on how much money we can make. Our programs are very good value. In a broad comparison to similar programs, we stay in better quality accommodation, charter private transport, include more activities, have greater depth to our programming, and pay our program instructors higher rates - all while keeping our program fees comparable with those of the majority of our competitors. We do this by having stream-lined and efficient systems, keeping administration overheads low, and spending a minimal amount on marketing.

Ethics - Our vision is for our programs and organizational practices to have a net positive impact on the world. For us, it's about providing a more rewarding and fulfilling travel experience; being culturally sensitive and minimizing negative impacts on the environment; getting involved with local people – ensuring that our visits benefit the community, and that the local people are involved in decisions that affect their lives. We believe it's important to help conserve the world’s wild places, to travel and live sustainability, and to pay it forward. Learn more about our Philosophy.

Values - New Zealanders value honesty, fairness, openness, and treading lightly on the earth (broad generalization). Being an organization founded by New Zealanders, these values permeate through to Pacific Discovery.

Our Philosophy

Our Mission

Our Mission is to make the world a better place by providing extraordinary learning adventures that assist students in gaining the skills, confidence and insight to realize their potential in an increasingly global society; developing empathy for other cultures; furthering understanding of international issues; and heightening appreciation for the earth's wilderness and diversity.


Our Vision

The vision is for our programs and organizational practices to have a net positive impact on the world.

Our Beliefs

Our planet is facing critical threats – unsustainable resource use, overpopulation and global warming.

We believe that the current global economic model is unsustainable and disadvantages large swathes of our world’s population.

We believe that as a planet, the concept of nation states is damaging. One country’s decisions effect every other country, yet this is rarely a consideration in policy and decision making. The world is too connected and too small for nation states to be the ultimate authority.

We believe that individuals can make a positive difference in the world. We believe that to change the world we have to start with ourselves and work outward from there.

We believe that the most effective way to affect positive change is through education and role-modelling. You cannot compel people to change their habits, be more considerate, more empathetic or more environmentally considerate. It is far more effective if people choose to do this themselves because they come to see and believe it is the right thing to do.



Our focus is on teasing out learning that is embedded within hands-on experience. Facilitated experiences on our programs contribute to students building a broader understanding of themselves and the world. We provide our students new lenses and paradigms to view the world through, assisting students to grow in the direction of clarity, purpose and hope.

We mentor our students to take an actively engaged and inquiry-based approach to their program experience. Through this, students gain self-knowledge, confidence and vocational direction.

We deal in ‘real’ experiences. These can be challenging at the time but with appropriate facilitation are ultimately beneficial and the catalyst for students growth.

Service learning

All of our programs have a service learning component. We really enjoy this aspect of our programs and we work hard to ensure that the well-structured volunteer projects we arrange benefit both our partners and students. Volunteer projects allow our students to really immerse themselves in a place and share an experience with local people, bridging the gap that often exists between visitor and host. We do not include volunteer activities simply to make our students feel good about themselves. Instead, service projects are planned around the expressed needs of a range of community groups, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

A lot of our students approach the service components of our programs inwardly focused on what they are going to gain from the experience. We turn this thinking around, and have them approach the volunteering without expectation of getting anything back for their efforts and with a true selfless desire to give of themselves. As Ghandi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Service-learning is the interaction between doing something practical (such as planting trees) and gaining a greater knowledge of the 'why' (how it benefits an ecosystem or community, etc.). And what makes it beautiful is that it is an engagement on many levels. Sometimes what is most useful is just hearing someone else’s story, or it could be the physical work done. You won’t always see a tangible impact of your efforts, but the reward is offering yourself to something/someone and being offered a genuine connection, opportunity, and engagement in return.

We strive to shift student orientation from “let me help you” to “let me come alongside you and learn from you." This changes the way students view community, and the way the communities view themselves. The exchange serves to heal some of the stories we’ve learned about ourselves and others.”