HQ Team

Based at Pacific Discovery HQ in Queenstown, and in Nelson, New Zealand, we have an outstanding and dynamic team leading Pacific Discovery.

Zach Johnston

Executive Director

Pacific Discovery & Pure Exploration

Zach grew up on a farm in the North Island of New Zealand. In his youth he hunted on horseback and scuba dived for food. At age 18 he joined the military and soon became a captain, commanding tanks and then to a specialized role in sniping and reconnaissance. After several other leadership roles, it was a 12-month position as the Senior Leadership Development Instructor at officer cadet school,  that he discovered his passion for mentoring young adults. After the military Zach ventured around the world rock climbing, discovering a passion for travel, exploration and adventure, believing they open and strengthen the mind, as well as inspire us to connect with ourselves and others.  He worked as an ambulance EMT and then began working as an Outdoor Educator and an International Expedition Leader, guiding expeditions on every continent except Antarctica. He has also ran a rock climbing company and a small group tour company. Wishing to enable more young adults to gain the skills and experience necessary to safely undertake adventures he developed the adventure travel program Pure Exploration.

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Austin Rogers

US Admissions Director

BA International Studies
Baylor University

Austin grew up in Texas and graduated from Baylor University with a B.A. in International Studies with a concentration in Political Science, during which she studied abroad in Italy at John Cabot University studying foreign affairs. Afterwards, she served an AmeriCorps VISTA term as a community organizer at the Texas Hunger Initiative, a capacity-building and collaborative organization seeking to develop and implement strategies to end hunger through policy, education, community organizing, and community development. Having enjoyed her VISTA year, she became a VISTA Leader and recruited, trained, and oversaw 25 VISTAs across five southern states, simultaneously serving as a manger, events coordinator, and program assistant with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. To gain more for-profit experience Austin joined Gap Inc in Washington, DC and managed a 6-million-dollar business for four years. Wishing to apply her experience to her love of traveling and adventure she moved to New Zealand to pursue an outdoor adventure guide program with Pure Exploration, Pacific Discovery's sister organization.

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Richard Castle

Program & Operations Manager

Pacific Discovery & Pure Exploration

Richard (Chard) grew up on a farm in England on the south coast of Kent, before travelling south to fulfill a dream to work in skifield operations at Mt Hutt. New Zealand quickly became home as he discovered his love for the outdoors was even stronger over this side of the world.

Chard was a key player in managing the famous AJ Hackett Bungy in Queenstown, and spent six years helping nervous people jump and hang off bridges around the countryside, before deciding to join the youth travel industry and help more people push and challenge themselves and gain amazing experiences.

Chard has a strong understanding of the importance of safety requirements and detailed planning to allow for smooth operations, and on tour he would be a key operational manager for the planning and executing all elements of the program.

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Nicky Sygrove

Outreach Director

BCom Marketing, BA(Hons) Art History
University of Otago

Nicky grew up in New Zealand’s high country, hiking, horse riding and exploring, so a love for the outdoors was inbuilt. After University Nicky began travelling – throughout Asia and Europe, with particular love for the mountains and people of Nepal and exploring trails in the French and Swiss Alps.

After working in social marketing for many years, Nicky found the youth travel industry an exciting and rewarding environment to help others broaden their perspectives, gain confidence in themselves and learn more about how to take care of our environment.

Nicky works and lives in Queenstown, New Zealand, with her husband Jimmy and son Joe. Being able to work in an industry that is making a difference to people’s lives and also enjoy a balanced life herself is extremely rewarding and hopes many others can find pathways in life that allow for personal and career success in equal measure.

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Poppy Kupreichik

Logistics & Administration Coordinator
Pacific Discovery & Pure Exploration

Originally from the South West of England, Poppy moved to Queenstown 7 years ago and never left. Having travelled through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Bali and lastly Australia, Poppy found that immersing herself in new cultures and unknown countries ignited her passion for adventure and experience.

Since settling in Queenstown, Poppy has taken up numerous activities and continued her journey of self development. Now an avid hiker and explorer, Poppy enjoys everything this beautiful region has to offer right on her doorstep, the beautiful summers and the fluffy winters. She loves being active, spending mornings and/or evenings as a Les Mills Instructor and her weekends hiking around the area. On lazier days you can find her with her cats and partner with a good book, relaxing in their home.

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Claire Murray

Program Advisor

BA in economics and political science
University College of Dublin

Claire is from the northern countryside of Ireland where she grew up in a family of 5 kids and 9 animals. Before University, Claire took an amazing gap year where she participated in a program in Thailand for a month and then completed the other 11 months in a self-directed travel across Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia, immersing herself in Asian Politics and Culture. After her travels she returned to Ireland to double major in Economics and Political Science at the University College of Dublin. After graduating, she continued her political journey, jumping straight into politics through an internship with the Irish Green Party as well an internship with Ambi, an environmental consulting company.  Honing her skills in environmental work she spent two years as a program executive at the Climate Innovation Center of Ireland where she facilitated the roll-out of multiple strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation, within Ireland and Africa.  Passionate about the outdoors, Claire has rock-climbed, surfed and traveled her way to New Zealand and fell in love with the country. Claire spends all her available time hiking, rock climbing, snow boarding and doing pottery.

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Scott Burnett

Founding Advisor

Experiential Educator
Practical Guy

Scott's path was shaped by growing up wanting to be an adventurer; climbing mountains and exploring; through the Scout movement with it's emphasis on leadership, group dynamics and service; and through holiday work at a wildlife sanctuary. After high school, he decided that the way to gain independence and fund his adventurous dreams was through hard work and cold cash. He completed a 4-year carpentry apprenticeship. This gave him practical skills, valuable self belief and funded an enviable lifestyle of climbing, mountain biking, travel and adventure. The study of philosophy and experiential education, led to work as an outdoor instructor and to work for the environmental organization Greenpeace, where he met Rachel.

Pacific Discovery grew out of this grounding in practical self-directed learning and a desire to share with others his love of travel, the outdoors, adventure and experiential education. Scott has now led in excess of 30 programs for Pacific Discovery, gaining an unmatched understanding of how to mentor young adults. He's researched new programs, trained our wonderful program instructors, designed our website, and recently took time out to build a solar-powered Pacific Discovery office. He contributes to the gap year field best practice, serving on both the Standards and the Ethics Committees of the American Gap Association.

Scott has also spent 9 years on the board of a grassroots development organization, Books for Cambodia; and has resumed his studies, currently mid-way through a BA in Development Studies. When time permits he loves adventures with his family, mountain biking, orienteering and ultimate frisbee.

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Program Instructors

We value our dedicated Program Instructors - they are the cornerstone of a safe, transformative, and outstanding experience for our students.

Our Program Instructors are inspiring people with extensive experience in the regions we visit, who share a deep respect for the people and cultures, a fascination with local history, and an in-depth understanding of contemporary issues and politics.

They are people in whom you can trust, who remain objective and supportive even in challenging circumstances, and who take a genuine interest in your well-being and safety. They implicitly understand the importance of balancing the needs of individuals with group objectives, facilitating healthy group dynamics, inspiring a genuine appreciation for the areas visited, and an awareness of minimum impact travel ethics.

Pacific Discovery Program Instructors are generally aged 25 - 35, with an average age of 28. All are Wilderness First Responder (WFR) first aid certified, and they are trained in experiential education facilitation, group leadership and risk assessment/management.

Rebecca Thomas

Instructor: Southeast Asia, Latin America

BA Spanish Literature & Education
Colorado College

Rebecca is a former Pacific Discovery participant, subsequently Outreach and Alumni Director and a program instructor with us for many years. She grew up outside Baltimore, Maryland and went to university in Colorado.

Colorado was the perfect playground for Rebecca where she continued her passion for traveling and the outdoors. When she was not in the classroom, Rebecca spent most of her time hiking, skiing and camping. During her junior year, she spent a semester abroad in Salamanca, Spain, living with a host family and studying advanced Spanish. To complete her minor in Education, Rebecca received a grant to study teaching methods at a special needs school outside of San José, Costa Rica.

Since she graduated in 2010, Rebecca has been a leader and facilitator for various organizations, leading groups in Southeast Asia, the US Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru and Tanzania.

Rebecca is now based in Portland, Maine, where she combines leading our shorter custom programs, with work with local youth getting them into the outdoors.

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Lee Neale

Instructor: South America, Southeast Asia, China, New Zealand, Australia

BA History, Latin American Studies
Furman University

Lee grew up happily playing soccer and shredding out guitar riffs while planning a life of adventure from the quiet suburbs of Charlotte, NC, USA. In 2009 Lee earned a Bachelor's degree in History with a concentration in Latin American Studies from Furman University. During his sophomore year in college, Lee took a short break and hiked for 1800 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail through the state of California. This experience inspired a love for the wilderness and allowed him to experience the transformational power of adventure travel. Lee has had the privilege to meet wonderful people and experience breathtakingly beautiful places while paddling, climbing and mountain biking throughout the United States, Central America, Asia and Patagonia. Lee has developed a passion for working with young adults through a variety of roles over the past six years, including Outdoor Instructor, EMT, Guide and Director of Student Life at a small boarding school. Lee is currently based out of Yangshuo, China, guiding, climbing beautiful Karst peaks, and studying Mandarin.

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Caitlin Dee

Instructor: Central & South America, Southeast Asia
Country Director: Latin America

BA Spanish
Skidmore College

Ever since learning her first word in 8th grade Spanish, Caitlin discovered the thrill of understanding a new language and knew that she wanted to learn Spanish in its entirety. Reaching near-fluency in high school inspired her to spend her junior year of college studying in Spain. After graduating with a BA in Spanish Language and Literature and Studio Art in 2006, Caitlin taught French and Spanish. She then became a Spanish medical translator. However, her hunger for travel motivated her to leave the teaching world and travel.

Since 2010, Caitlin has been working as a program instructor in Latin America, sharing her love of travel, adventure and cultural exchange. She is a great mentor for our students - easy to connect with and providing such a depth of experience for them to draw from. She is a safety and risk management pro! She spent the past Fall finalizing the development of our new Central America Semester. Caitlin is fluent in Spanish and French, and conversant in Italian.

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Jessica Dick

Instructor: Southeast Asia, Nepal & Tibet, India

BSc Environmental Science
University of New Hampshire

Jess is thankful for her small town start to life in Northern Alberta, Canada. At age 4, she began to explore by horseback, quickly developing a sense of adventure, a respect for nature, learning how to nurture that which you love, and a strong work ethic. When she finally climbed down from the saddle, Jess found herself on a volleyball court. Her perseverance and dedication resulted in the invitation to play for the University of New Hampshire, USA, where she divided her time between passions - the environment and volleyball.

After graduating, Jess set off to provide support for organic agriculturalists throughout India. Her continuing quest for adventure led to Nepal where she trekked in the Solu Khumbu towards Everest. She has been based in Thailand for the last three years, where she's had opportunities to pursue her love of diving, traveling and a discover a surprising passion for teaching. Her grasp on Thai language, appreciation for different cultures, and a love of the outdoors enable her to be both mentor and inspiration to our students.

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Joshua Moreton

Instructor: New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia

BA Outdoor Education
Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology

Josh picked up the adventure bug at an early age. He grew up in a hardworking family farming environment in the South Island of New Zealand, and during his teenage years spent most weekends fishing, kayaking, hunting, diving, mountain biking, tramping and rock climbing. These experiences fueled his passion for the the outdoors, and he went on to complete a Bachelor's degree in Outdoor Education. Ever since he has pursued a career in outdoor guiding and group facilitation...interspersed with time off for his own adventures (kayaking in the USA, rocking climbing in Thailand, trekking in Nepal). Josh has a permanent hiking-boot tan (which some say he was born with!), a vast repertoire of jokes, and is always excited when off on another adventure, be it with old friends or new. He is an incredibly genuine, supportive and inspiring program instructor.

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Beth Farrell

Instructor: Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia

BSc Human Movement Studies/Education
University of Queensland

Beth grew up in the outdoor playground that is Magnetic Island in north Queensland, Australia, and rarely a day went by that she and friends were not off on an adventure. Graduating from the University of Queensland with a degree in Human Movement Studies and Education, Beth has taught in various styles and environments in England, Spain and Australia, but firmly believes the outdoors to be the best learning environment. Beth is an avid traveller and loves spending time in new environments, getting to know the people and culture. She lived in Spain for 2 years and has recently spent a year in Fiji developing accessibility to sport for people with disabilities. Her favorite mode of travel is by bike, followed closely by sailing - but is quick to jump onboard any adventure, often packing a slack-line, ukelele and skateboard, in the belief these tools facilitate the most fun out of any experience.

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Devin Perno

Instructor: Southeast Asia, China

BS Environmental Science
University of Colorado, Boulder

Devin Perno was fortunate to grow up in the beautiful sunny state of Colorado, where he developed a passion for the outdoors and everything related to nature - camping with the family, going on hiking expeditions, skiing through the mountains, and biking . Devin completed a BS in Environmental Science with two minors in Geology and Geography from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He pursued experience in this field working at the US Geological Society and Colorado State Parks.

With an urge to see more of the world, Devin packed his bags to work at an outdoor company in Hawaii before venturing further afield to work at an outdoor education company in Yangshuo, China. He gained valuable insight into how a change of scene can cause a change of mind - boundaries were pushed, new experiences gained. Devin discovered that working in outdoor education allowed him to be in the outdoors, sharing with others the same experiences that he loved, and the valuable learning and personal growth implicit in this. Three years later, Devin is still based in China while working as an educator all across Asia. He enjoys being in an environment that can teach others new experiences and gain new insights. In his free-time he is climbing, hiking, playing music, studying mandarin, and exploring the hidden corners of Asia.

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Jessica Thomas

Instructor: Australia, New Zealand, Nepal & Tibet

BA International Studies
University of New South Wales

Jessica Thomas is a travel writer, facilitator of empowerment, adventurer and cycle-tourer. She grew up on the beautiful South Coast of New South Wales. At six she would visit the elderly in hospital to ask about their lives, and at 16 she was raising money to send wheelchairs to children in developing countries. When she left home at 17, her father’s last words were ‘don’t join a cult’. Jessica carried these words with her while she trained as a soldier and army officer in the Australian Defence Force, before having a pivotal experience in Nepal and subsequently leaving the military to travel the world. Jessica graduated from the University of New South Wales with a Bachelor of International Studies, majoring in development. She has explored over 50 countries, many of these by bicycle. She stood on Kala Pattar for Christmas; looked at the pyramids from the back of a camel; slept in the Gobi desert watching shooting stars; walked with a blind boy along the Camino de Santiago; made cheese in the Swiss alps; peered at her reflection in the salt flats of Bolivia; and dined with highland minorities in northern Thailand. Jessica has become more hungry for life and it’s endless possibilities with each new experience. Her next big life goal is to cycle around the world.

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Susy Stokes

Instructor: New Zealand, Australia

BA Sustainability and Outdoor Education
Diploma in Instructing and Guiding
Ara Institute of Canterbury

Growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, Susy's had a life-long love of the ocean and all things water-based - surfing, kayaking, snorkelling, swimming, sailing and her new favourite spearfishing. Working as a camp counsellor at an outdoor summer camp near New York was her first experience abroad, and she has been chasing fun, adventure and soul-fulfilling work ever since.

After graduating college Susy worked in experiential education in Italy, Australia and New Zealand – most recently at the Hillary Outdoors Centre on spectacular Great Barrier Island. Susy has a passion for helping others grow and develop through experiencing all the magic a connection to the outdoors offers.

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Benjamin Jacobs-Schwartz

Instructor: Central America, South America

BA Environmental Studies & Biology
UC Santa Cruz

Growing up on the West Coast of the US, Benny’s innate love for nature was evident at a very young age. His experiences in the natural world grew rapidly through his participation in multi-week adventure programs during his summers in high school.  Here he was introduced to sea kayaking, white-water rafting, mountaineering, rock-climbing, mountain biking, back packing, the ethics of leave no trace and of course ultimate frisbee. Inspired by his instructors, the profound impact of community, and the healing aspects of the natural world, Benny has committed himself to a life of education, outdoor recreation and group facilitation.

Since graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 2013 Benny has passionately pursued work as a field biologist, backpacking guide, land steward, and bird photographer. These positions have afforded him opportunities to work in Central America, The Sierra Nevada, US’s mid-west and north east.  A selection of his photos can be seen in his self-published, “A Field Guide to Birds of UC Santa Cruz” which serves as a tool for introductory bird watchers and nature enthusiasts.  When not poring through dense field guides, and chasing rare bird sightings, Benny ardently pursues outdoor recreation, empowering others, and working with youth. He is an accomplished naturalist, great company, and is fluent in both Spanish and fun! He hopes his love of the natural world will inspire others to conserve and preserve the open spaces around them.

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Caitlin Neal

Instructor: Southeast Asia, Nepal & Tibet

BS Communications with theater focus
Montreat College

When your father is a US Army officer, travel and moving are a way of life. Caitlin was born on the largest populated post in the United States and spent her preschool years in Heidelberg, Germany. Learning to snow ski in the Barbarian Alps, exploring medieval castles, and crisscrossing Europe on family vacations provided “childhood as usual” experiences that would be bucket list items for most folks.

Later, while living outside urban Washington, DC, she spent weekends and holidays marveling the natural and cultural history preserved at the Smithsonian Museums and climbing the steps of many of America’s most notable monuments.

Growing up on the move (7 moves and 9 different schools), Caitlin's local neighborhoods provided terrific diversity — military family members originate from all parts of the world! This allowed her to develop childhood skills of empathy for others who are new to a place, and to use her big smile and interest in all people to make new friends!

Caitlin chose Montreat College in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains - she was drawn to the beauty of the area. One course provided her with a deeper appreciation for the wilderness through a month-long excursion whitewater canoeing, rock climbing, backpacking, and a three-day solo. This experience at such an influential period in her education provided her with the motivation to share wilderness instruction with other young adults. The next summer, she was asked to join an environmental scientist along the South Carolina coast and chronicle his work through her photography. University also allowed her to star in multiple theater productions, as varied as Shakespeare to the tale of Robert Falcon Scott's Antarctic adventures.

Recognizing the immense healing power of authentic wilderness experiences, Caitlin began work as a wilderness therapy instructor with struggling teens. For two and a half years, she led adolescents through the mountains of Western North Carolina and found a tremendous passion in aiding the development of individuals at such an impactful stage of life. Her enthusiasm for their personal growth combined with her creativity in theatrics made for epic ceremonies and fun times around the camp fires.

Always inspired by her former students, Caitlin recently followed one of her own life goals and traveled to India to study Ashtanga yoga. Her course was followed by a trip through ancient ashrams and temples, treks in the Himalaya mountains of Nepal and rock climbing in Thailand.

When Caitlin is not leading Pacific Discovery trips she enjoys searching for hot springs in remote places, practicing yoga on mountain tops, visiting her international community of friends, capturing her experiences through photography and painting, and adding recipes to her forever growing cookbook.

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Ricki Hurst

Instructor: New Zealand, Australia

Diploma in Outdoor Leadership and Management
Otago Polytechnic

Ricki was lucky enough to be born and raised at the base of the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula, in the North Island of New Zealand, where his youth was spent working on the farm and playing sports with his friends and family. Discovering the wonders of the outdoors at High School led Ricki to study outdoor leadership at Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin, where he majored in white water kayaking and sea kayaking. Since the completion of his studies, Ricki has devoted most of his time to his number one passion in life: the water. Whether it be sea kayak guiding in the Abel Tasman and Fiordland National Parks in New Zealand, or raft guiding/safety kayaking in Thailand and Wales.

Ricki is passionate about sharing his love of the great outdoors with others, with a major emphasis on safety and having a really fun time.

When not on expedition, Ricki can be found exploring rivers and oceans around New Zealand in his kayak, scuba diving and freediving in the beautiful fjords of Fiordland, climbing in the mountains, or just relaxing playing his guitar or reading a book.

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Karlee Taylor

Instructor: New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, Nepal & Tibet

BS Ecotourism, Flinders University
Grad Dip Environmental Management
University of Queensland

Karlee grew up on Kaurna and Peramangk country in Humbug Scrub, South Australia, often spending the whole day roaming the family property and adjoining National Park.

Ever-curious to look up the little things admired on these adventures, she developed a passion for ecology and went on to work as an Interpretive Guide on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia and Seal Bay on Kangaroo Island in South Australia.

Karlee lived in rural Laos for two years developing a community-based ecotourism model in a newly-formed National Protected Area and later established a not-for-profit organisation, Creative Literacy Laos, sharing a love of literacy, passion for story-telling and life-long learning with remote communities in the Annamite Ranges.

Recently, Karlee discovered a passion for bicycle and motorcycle touring, travelling from Laos to London overland.

When not exploring elsewhere, Karlee loves to garden and believes that learning in the outdoors can help us to connect as creatures of the earth with the wider community of the natural world.

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Richard Bassett-Smith

Instructor: Australia, New Zealand

Diploma Outdoor Instruction & Guiding
Tai Poutini Polytechnic

At the age of six, Richard’s father flew the family up the east coast and down through the 'Red Center' of Australia in a five-seater Cessna plane - launching Richard’s adventurous life.  At the Outdoors Club at Melbourne University Richard became a climber, a mountaineer and a paddler (kayaker). While at university, Richard realised he needed a way to fund beckoning adventures, so he switched to a building apprenticeship and full-time work in construction.

He has enjoyed numerous expeditions to climb mountains in New Zealand and Central Asia, and most recently a river journey through what is called the Grand Canyon of South America, the Maranon River, head waters tributary of the Amazon in Peru - a river that may no longer flow should they build the twenty-one dams that have been proposed. He also served in the Australian Army reserves and was deployed to East Timor for 8 months on a peacekeeping mission.

Seeking work/life balance and a career in line with his passions, Richard moved to New Zealand to live on the West Coast and completed a Diploma in Outdoor Instruction and Guiding. He enjoys teaching, paying forward what he has gained from his life in the outdoors, and enjoying seeing others develop and experience the wonders of the world around us.

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Keshet Miller

Instructor: Central America, South America

BA Sustainability
Arizona State University

Keshet is originally from New York and moved to the Arizonan desert as a teenager. She has always been happiest when outside and was lucky enough to grow up camping, hiking and finding the quietest corners of National parks across the country.

A backpacking trip in the Colorado Rocky Mountains as a high schooler ignited her passion to protect and teach others about the beauty and importance of the natural environment around us. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability at Arizona State University, focusing on international development and environmental policy.

Keshet fell in love with international travel and the Spanish language while studying abroad in Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua and since then has continued to follow her passion for the love of the outdoors and youth development within the international community. This has led her to a variety of roles including trail maintenance, conservation biology, wilderness therapy, organic farming and environmental education.

Keshet is a compassionate mentor and teacher, and wishes to inspire and empower the next generation of environmental stewards. She is excited to be a part of the Pacific Discovery team!

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Kevin Connelly

Instructor: Southeast Asia, Nepal & Tibet, India

BA Fine Arts
University of Montana

Kevin is a documentary photographer and avid traveller, and for several years has led many young people on inspiring experiences throughout Southeast Asia.

Kevin graduated from the University of Montana specializing in fine art and photography. After graduating in 2008, Kevin began leading photography and adventure trips through Southeast Asia where he has spent most of his time since then, also working on various human rights projects. He has worked with refugees, landmine victims, migrant workers, transgenders, and ethnic soldiers. He has also conducted several photography workshops for non government organizations along the Thai/Burma border.

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Kate Sabo

Instructor: Southeast Asia, South America

BA Cultural Anthropology
Willamette University

Kate hails from the farmlands of Western Massachusetts and has spent the better portion of her life pursuing her next big adventure. Kate has lived in Spain, summited mountains in the Andes, backpacked through Morocco, and worked at a tea shop in Turkey. From a young age Kate learnt the importance and power that comes from travel and engaging with different cultures. Kate holds a BA in Anthropology, completing her capstone research on the influence of cultural tourism on rural communities in developing countries. In 2013 Kate moved to Asia where she has lived ever since, working as a rock climbing guide in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay and on the limestone karats of SE China. Outside of travel Kate enjoys whitewater sports, spontaneous dancing and getting dirty from long days outdoors.

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