Hawaii Pacific University educational community trip with Discova

Client Relationships: Over a Decade with Hawaii Pacific University

September 1, 2022

In 2010, Discova’s Educational Travel (DET) team in Asia (then Buffalo Tours) developed a long-standing client relationship with Hawaii Pacific University (HPU), and more specifically Paul Tran, an instructor at the university’s College of Health and Society – School of Social Work. Paul specialises in Southeast Asian immigrant and refugee topics, homeless/at risk youth and international social work. His field of interest led him to develop a curriculum for his students that involved a regular trip to Southeast Asia.

For over a decade, our DET team has been working together with Paul to create meaningful, impactful university tour itineraries in some of our Asia destinations. We spoke with Paul to find out what has cemented this longevity and why he chooses Discova time and time again.

Hawaii Pacific’s first trip with Discova

Every couple of years, Paul organises an extensive international ‘Sustainable or Community Service Project’ trip for his social work students during the university’s winter break (in December). The first trip of such he ever planned with Discova involved a three-week long itinerary in Vietnam in December 2010. It was also the first he had ever organised while working for HPU.

The trip saw them criss-cross the country from north to south, and involved an orphanage visit (we no longer offer this type of activity) and volunteering in Hanoi and community service support for an elementary school in Mai Chau. In the video below, you will see how some of Paul’s students’ efforts have come to fruition there.

Paul had initiated this trip with the desire to bring his students in direct contact with the global issues they were studying about. Instead of simply reading about the social issues at hand in countries like Vietnam, he wanted them to experience them personally and help wherever possible. 

Paul had initiated this trip with the desire to bring his students in direct contact with the global issues they were studying about. Instead of simply reading about the social issues at hand in countries like Vietnam, he wanted them to experience them personally and help wherever possible. 

What drew Paul to Discova?

When Paul decided he wanted to incorporate a practical, international trip in his curriculum, he did extensive research. When he found Discova he concluded that our mission statement and values aligned with those that he wanted to share with his students. His goal had been to offer his students a trip that was not just educational, but sustainable and beneficial to local people too. He could see that Discova was aiming for authentic travel that benefited local communities.

I didn’t want to be someone to just go and take and not give back. So we made sure that the projects that [Discova] had in store for us actually benefited the communities that we were visiting. Those were the things I was looking forward to. That there is an educational component and that the community members are a part of that process.

HPU students help paint a school in Mai Chau, Vietnam
Paul’s students helped paint and brighten up an elementary school in Mai Chau, Vietnam

He also emphasises that working with us has been such a success because of the attentiveness and professionalism of our travel designers. “The front-line staff were very helpful in answering my millions of questions and creative in the way they strategised and mapped out our trip. I think if you had to pinpoint what kinds of services Discova provides, I would say the consistent attention to details, logistics, and follow-through.” He noted that in particular, Phuong Doan, our Regional DET Manager, who was one of the first Discova employees he had contact with, has been incredibly helpful throughout the years.

How did Discova’s people stand out? 

For Paul, the engagement of our staff beyond the routine was the icing on the cake. “I think the [DET] staff often went above and beyond their actual responsibilities. They would make the effort to meet my students, connect with them after their normal office hours, and a couple of times they actually attended the university’s presentations and workshops. It wasn’t just ‘Here Paul, here is your itinerary’. It was ‘Here is your itinerary, but I’m coming with you to the university or social service organisations in Vietnam and will listen to lectures, hear about what you do with your students, and participate in some of the activities’. So, they also learned something from that.

Vuttha Dam, who has been a tour guide with Discova since 2010, is one of the guides Paul has particularly high praise for

Guides are another factor that make or break a trip, and Paul found the interest and enthusiasm of ours particularly endearing. On one trip Paul sent the tour guide a list of social work key words and phrases in advance. “I think what set him apart is that he realised that while he had understanding of English, he didn’t have the social work lingo. So I would send him a list [to be used for translation in Vietnamese], and he did his homework, which was really awesome. If he had done the translations on the fly, I think that would have been really challenging.

HPU visit Vietnam on community trip - Hoi An, basket boat activity
Paul's students took part in some fun between all the hard work too, like a basket boat tour in Hoi An

What was special to him during the trips too, was that guides would often join in on the programme when they weren’t expected to. “What the students appreciated about the tour guides is that they too, wanted to learn. Because we are cultural ambassadors for Hawaii, part of my requirement is that we need to share a bit about Hawaiian culture. It was really nice to see tour guides embrace that, so we got them singing with us, dancing hula, playing the ukelele. A tour guide can say ‘That’s not within my job description’ and not participate. But they wanted to learn”. Paul notes that one tour guide on a specific trip even got involved during a beach clean-up and other activities, and that that was especially great to experience.


What does Paul believe his students gained from the trips?

Paul says that he thinks a big take-away for most is understanding what privilege means. “A common theme I hear from all the trips is that it really allows them to see the world from a different perspective. It’s a humbling experience for some.


HPU students visit a homestay
Paul's students spend time with the local families in the homestays they stay overnight in

His students have also built very helpful and insightful relationships with students from other universities who partnered on HPU’s trips with Discova. Over the course of three weeks, students have a lot to learn from each other, and again, Paul believes that opens their world to new cultural behaviours, beliefs and systems.

It also tends to be an academic trip, and they’re able to share with me ‘Ok, I understand the theory, and now that I’ve actually practiced it a bit, it’s harder than what’s been written in the text’. And I always ask them what they learned from it, and I’ll often hear that they learned to be open-minded, to be more flexible. Travelling teaches you that even when an itinerary is planned out from 8 o’clock to 7 o’clock, things can change.” Paul says some students expect a lot of structure, and managing changing dynamics can be a great challenge and way of acquiring a new skill set.

HPU students speak with North Vietnamese war veterans
Paul: “This was actually a very meaningful activity. The uncle of one of my student’s had fought in the Vietnam-American War, and the student requested to interact with former North Vietnamese veterans. We met with them over lunch and had a cultural exchange conversation.”

One trip in particular, during which a student of Paul’s got very ill, also showed Paul and his group just how accommodating and empathetic people from entirely different backgrounds can be. At the time, they were at a local school in Vietnam, and two teachers immediately took the sick student and Paul to the nearest hospital on the back of their scooters. After the hospital visit, the teachers took the student back to their home to be taken care of and recover. It’s that caring nature, beyond borders and cultures, that we hope to see all of our visiting student groups experience in our destinations (minus the getting sick part, of course).


What’s next?

For the end of this year, Paul and Discova are planning an even bigger, better trip than the previous record. “As each trip comes along, I level up. I change the approach quite a bit. Each year has a different theme, and I try to make it more sustainable. Because I’m learning along the way, too.

This time around, Paul has planned a collaborative trip using the Interprofessional Education (IPE) Model, during which students from two or more professions learn about, from, and with each other to enable effective collaboration and improve health outcomes. They will do so by integrating the model with the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. He is planning the trip together with Columbia University School of Public Health, one university in the Philippines, as well as two universities from Japan. The ambitious itinerary will involve one week in Japan, one week in the Philippines, and one week in Vietnam.

One of the major goals of this trip is to have faculties and students from Japan and the Philippines join his students in Vietnam, and together interact and build relationships with students and faculties from the Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities. He hopes that this IPE approach will encourage greater engagement between his students and local communities in Vietnam, too. Discova is working with Paul to make the long-term effects of his students’ work more visible and sustainable in global society.

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