Reflections of a College Student: Abroad in Ghana, Africa


For sixteen years I spent each weekday from September through June surrounded by two-thousand teenagers. They sat in my classroom, worked with me on extracurricular activities, planned events, volunteered, did community outreach and we learned from each other. As a teacher, there are many students whose lives intersect with yours during their tenure of high school and once they graduate and spread their wings you’re lucky if that contact is still present. With the advent of social media more and more graduates are able to choose to connect with their teachers. For some it’s to say thank you, for some it’s to ask for advice or recommendations and for others its merely to maintain that connection that started in their youth. I was the class advisor for the graduating class of 2012 and it was in their sophomore year when I left to travel the world and live in Australia for awhile. Those who were interested in travel wanted to know more about my journey. Social media and that travel gene has connected me with many former students and I’m always interested to see where life has taken them after high school.  It was that travel connection that brought Maddie Reilly and me back together. A close friend of one of my officers, she spread her university wings farther than many of her peers by taking a university program abroad in Ghana, Africa. When I saw her at this past high school graduation, she was excited to start planning her next adventure to wherever the wind would take her. Here, she reflects on her journey and shares her views of the gifts of travel.

Interview with: Maddie Reilly, Farmingdale, NY


Farmingdale alum, traveler-Maddie Reilly

1.What’s the first travel experience you can remember? When you were young, what type of trips did you take with your family? The first travel experience I can remember is going camping with my extended family. It was a lot of fun! All the kids would run around and play all we wanted and our parents would call us back by whistling into the top of an acorn. I remember taking a lot of day trips. We would go to Westbury Gardens for the day or sometimes out to Montauk. Family friends of ours also had a log cabin in the Berkshires so we used to go up there all the time.

2.Why did you want to travel abroad during university? I never thought I would want to study abroad. I remember coming to freshman orientation and my mom was really pushing the idea of studying abroad and I was just not interested. Don’t get me wrong, I love to travel but I wanted to focus on making friends and having the “classic” college experience. To me, studying abroad meant a semester away from the college experience that I craved. It wasn’t until one of my favorite professors presented the trip to the class that I even considered studying abroad.


Traversing the forest

3.How did you choose Africa and more specifically, Ghana? When one of my favorite professors presented the trip to my Political Science class, I was hooked. He was the faculty member that actually went on the trip with us so he was full of information. It just seemed so interesting to go to such a different place! My logic was that I could go to Europe some other time because it is a very tourist friendly place. For Africa and more specifically Ghana, I felt I would want connections to travel safely so going with a study abroad program seemed like the perfect opportunity.

 4.What did you expect to get out of this trip to Ghana? What surprised you most of all? I expected significant culture shock going to Ghana. Often times when people I know think of Africa, we think of poverty stricken areas so I was expecting to see a lot of that. Although we did go into some poor villages and experience significant culture shock, the thing that shocked me most was the fast growing urban scene. Ghana’s capita, Accra, is a booming metropolis. Oil was discovered off Ghana’s coast so the industry there has been rapidly growing. The city was definitely much more sophisticated than I was expecting.

bongo drums

Learning to play the bongo drums

5.What was the response of your friends and family when you shared your excitement of going abroad in Africa? Honestly, my family was not too keen on me going to Ghana. They were worried about my safety traveling to a place that is often depicted as unstable and dangerous. Also they were a little unnerved by all the medications and vaccinations I had to get prior to traveling. My friends on the other hand were totally on board. They thought it was so cool that I was going to Africa, although I think some of them thought I was going to a jungle or something rather than a metropolitan area.

6.What did you learn on your trip that you feel you couldn’t have gotten from a book, the Internet or a traditional school setting? I learned so much about the culture. We were completely immersed for the three weeks we were there. That just isn’t something you can get from reading about a culture second-hand from a book or the Internet. We learned about the traditional clothes, the cuisine, the history, and even some tribal language in such a short amount of time because we were surrounded by it every day. It would have taken months to learn everything that I absorbed in just 3 weeks if we had been learning in a traditional school setting.

me and monkey

Hanging with a friendly monkey

7.What did you learn about yourself on this trip? How do you think you’ve grown after spending time in Ghana? It may sound strange, but I really learned to accept my natural beauty on this trip. Half the time the showers weren’t working let alone the electricity to let me blow-dry my hair. Before the trip I wouldn’t be caught dead with my hair air-drying and without make up, but I was forced to on the trip and it really showed me that I don’t need all that stuff to feel beautiful. True beauty comes from within and we really all should try and embrace that more. I also have grown into a more secure and humble person because of the trip. It just gave me so much perspective, and it makes me so grateful for what I have.

8.What would you suggest to others thinking about adding travel to their lives? Do it! Seriously stop thinking and just do it. I think too often people put off travel and wait until they are older to finally see the world. Personally, I want to see as much of the world as I can while I am still young. I want to be able to take the stairs to the top of the Eiffel Tower or run along the top of the Great Wall of China. So stop overthinking, over planning, and worrying. Just do it.

school children

In the midst of school children

9.Where do you want to go next? I would love to go to Australia. I love the beach and they have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Also I would go for the wildlife. I want to see kangaroos and koalas not to mention I am an avid Shark Week watcher and would love to go Great White Shark cage diving!

10.What do you think have been travel’s gifts to you? Appreciation has definitely been one. I am so much more grateful for what I have. And I don’t just mean material things. I am so lucky to have my health, my family, my friends, and the peace of mind that comes from living in America. We truly are so blessed in this country and often times it takes traveling to other places to really see that. Also like I mentioned earlier I definitely embrace my natural beauty more from traveling. It is hard to look put together after a thirteen-hour flight or after 3 days without running water. Eventually I just embraced those things, which in turn made me feel so much more secure in my own skin. The biggest gift I have been given is experience. I have gotten to see, taste, smell, and hear so many new and exciting things because of travel. I have so many funny stories and beautiful memories that I will have for a lifetime, and that to me is the greatest gift of all.


University students in Ghana

Maddie Reilly’s Favourites:

  • Favourite Travel Quote: “Not all those who wander are lost” -J.R.R Tolkien
  • Favourite Travel-themed Movie: The Wizard of Oz because it reminds us that there’s no place like home.
  • Favourite Travel-themed Book: On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • Favourite Travel Outfit: sneakers, yoga capris, a tank top, and a hoodie—layering and comfort are key when traveling!
  • Favourite Travel Memory: I will never forget when I went to France and stayed with this elderly couple that barely spoke English for 3 days. I was so terrified and out of my comfort zone staying with them but I will never forget it. I especially remember when they brought me to a gospel concert (they were very religious) and I listened to this French choir sing “he’s got the whole world in his hands.

Fun Facts about Maddie Reilly:

  • I go to SUNY Cortland.
  • Right now, my dream job would be a physical therapist.
  • If I could volunteer anywhere in the world, I’d go to Nepal to work with children with physical disabilities. There is a huge shortage of physical therapy skills there so American interns can assist the physical therapists in rehabilitation centers for children.
  • The item I find most useful in my travels is an alarm clock. Jet lag is a pain and you don’t want to be the person that is always late!
  • The most useful travel tip I’ve ever received is how to check your bed for bed bugs. It might seem gross but you can’t be too careful especially when traveling. It’s really simple: with the lights off peel back the fitted sheet on your mattress and shine a flashlight at the seam on the edge. Bedbugs hate the light so you will see them running around if they are there.





Interview: Wagoners Abroad


Travelers always seem to find other travelers one way or another. Sometimes you meet your best friend in the hostel lobby searching for wifi. Other times they find that they’re two travel happy folks living in close proximity to one another and would love to take off on new adventures. The Wagoners met abroad but actually lived close by to one another. They ditched their home towns on the west coast and made a move to North Carolina early in their marriage. Now with two kids in tow, they’ve set off on a new adventure abroad. Immersing their children in the cultures of Spain and now Southeast Asia, they’ve all learned to enjoy being outside of their comfort zone and see the world first-hand. Here they share their story and what they think are the ‘gifts of travel’.

Wagoners Abroad  See, Austria


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How do you celebrate a milestone?


anniversary in LB

Traveling always feels like a gift to me. Whether it’s a road trip for the day or a month long journey, I feel lucky to be able to experience. Sometimes it’s as simple as a morning brunch out locally when typically we make breakfast at home. Other times it’s watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat after trekking to Cambodia for that remarkable moment. Either way, it’s a celebration of the everyday in a new and defining way.

toes in the sand

I think I’ve mentioned it before; I’m turning forty in a few weeks. It’s fairly mind-blowing to think I’ve been on the planet that long and have friends for more than half my life. When my husband asked what I wanted for my birthday, it wasn’t a difficult answer and he knew it before I even opened my mouth. An adventure and time were all I asked for. I know, sounds strange to some as many are interested in material objects or sparkly things, but for me, travel has always been the vice and the gift all rolled into one. I have many friends who experienced this same milestone either a few years prior to me or earlier this year. It’s interesting to see who wanted to delete their birthday from all forms of social media and who wanted to shout it from the rooftops at a gala event filled with people or anything in between. I wonder, do our wishes change as we age? Are there more people who look for experience than things as the years tick by or does it still depend on the person? How do you celebrate? Read the rest of this entry

Interview: Jonny Blair of Don’t Stop Living


Travelers find other travelers. We even seek each other out. When found, there’s no limit to the conversations about adventure, visas, heritage sites and local cuisine. Have you stayed at that hostel? Did you eat at Joe’s Beerhouse where your toes wiggle in the sand as the feast arrives at your table? What did you like best about that certain city? The questions are endless and the stories come with a side of travel adventure and usually a lot of laughter. Jonny Blair is a long term traveler and travel writer at Don’t Stop Living – A Lifestyle of Travel and Backpacking in China. Jonny has visited around 600 cities/towns in 90 countries across all 7 continents in the past decade. He is one of those travelers you might find at a hostel lobby or in that famed restaurant regaling others with stories of journeys while enjoying local fare. Here he shares his travel experiences and his advice to ‘work anywhere and get ready for a crazy time’.

Jonny Blair and an elephant in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka elephant visit

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The gifts of friendship in my 40th year

The gifts of friendship in my 40th year

Everyday there’s a Facebook post about friendship. Sometimes its about college friends, sometimes high school buddies and there are even ones about ‘un-friending’ people. Seems there’s much to be written in even short bursts about stories of friendships. I’ve been lucky.

Throughout forty years on the planet, there have been people beside me. Some have flitted in and out of life as quickly as a firefly lights up a night’s sky and others have stayed for decades at a time like that comfy sweatshirt you always choose from the back of the cupboard. Each one has had a purpose. This year, I find myself quite pensive. Thoughts of life changes, challenges, growth, choices and friendships have popped into the forefront of my mind more times than I can count. Is this forty? Is it a time when you take stock of people, choices and things in your life? Is it normal? Does it happen to other people? I haven’t taken a poll-but I’ve been taking stock, for certain. It’s been a big year. Read the rest of this entry

Yoga’s gift…aging gracefully!

Yoga’s gift…aging gracefully!

To the lady in the front row of beach yoga today…THANK YOU!

This is the year I turn forty. It’s been filled with Facebook posts, surprise parties and escapades of friends experiencing the same milestone. Amidst the happy birthdays and ‘fabulous forty’ posts there comes that dread of ‘oh my goodness-how on earth am I going to be forty?’ If I’m lucky, in just a few weeks, I’ll reach the same milestone as so many of my fellow 1996 university graduates. Here’s hoping the next forty years are filled with as many amazing adventure as the first forty.

Today started as a traveler’s morning in my own town. A morning beach yoga class on the sand at Lafayette Beach provided by Kristen, our beach yoga instructor. This class was bigger than it’s been all summer. A total of twenty-one people ranged in ages from early twenties to late sixties came to greet the day with their toes in the sand and hips in the air. Read the rest of this entry

Interview: Go, See, Write (Michael Hodson)


My parents tell me it’s a generational thing. In ‘their’ day, most people had one job or one profession for over thirty years and then they retired. All did their best to sock away a nest egg of sorts for their ‘retirement’ years and some were even lucky enough to add a well-earned pension to that chunk of money in the bank. They tell me, ‘today’s generation is different’. I’m sure you’ve heard it a hundred times yourself. Today, in the age of 140 character thoughts, instant messaging and snapchats, the world of occupational loyalty is different. Now, if a lawyer becomes a lego-artist, a teacher trades the classroom for the world of not-for-profits, or an accountant becomes a strength and conditioning coach less people are surprised. Company loyalty isn’t the same, people don’t tend to stay in the same place for as long as they once did and what was once considered a hobby or side gig can become a full time love. It’s all happened thousands of times before, but today, more and more people are choosing a work-life balance over that handsome paycheck. Michael Hodson, a successful attorney changed his mind. He hit the road in 2008 and hasn’t looked back since. Here he shares his story and what he believes to be the gifts of travel. Read the rest of this entry

20 tips for a perfect beach day…anywhere!



It’s summer in New York. For me, summer means sandy feet, beach days, long walks, boardwalk time, picnics, sarongs, adventures, barbecues, outdoor entertainment and ice cream. Each day people flock to the sand to enjoy their own ‘perfect’ beach day. The people we often sit with on the weekends at Azores Beach often categorize the day and smile wide when they exclaim, ‘today is a perfect 10!’ Sun, sand and serenity are often parts of their measuring scale. Long Beach is at max capacity in the summer and often you’ll find some of our favourite locals looking forward to Labor Day when the hoards will disappear and ownership of the sand returns to those who live her year ‘round. During those winter months, many of us look to escape the cold and recreate those days of summer in a warmer climate. How do we make that ‘perfect 10′ day on the sand happen again?

How do we ‘bring back summer’? Read the rest of this entry

Traveling Overseas…what to do before you go!



pin for blog(source)

You’ve dreamed about it for as long as you can remember and now it’s here. Tickets are booked, that packing list is beginning to swirl in your brain and you’re counting down the minutes until you head to the airport…now what? Although that aforementioned packing list will differ between long and short term travelers, some things are constant. Of course, not everyone will have the same amount of time available to plan, but the more you take care of ahead of time, the less you’ll have to worry later. No matter where you’re traveling from or heading to, certain things apply. Taking care of yourself, having access to finances, making it across borders safely and connecting with family and friends are priorities across the board. Perhaps these few suggestions will make your pre-trip planning easier. Enjoy the journey! Read the rest of this entry

Travel Interview: Jessie on a Journey


On an underwater snorkel adventure

Jessica Festa is a full-time travel writer who is always up for an adventure. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia and doing orphanage work in Ghana. Here she shares her story and advice: ‘stop making excuses'; she believes you’ll find the many gifts of travel if you just leap. Read the rest of this entry