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Passing on a Love for Travel: CIEE Study Abroad Alumna and HI USA Staffer Kassi Oliver

"Travel leads to world peace...You learn to appreciate and not judge. And it’s not even a forced process; building tolerance and being a less prejudiced person just starts to happen naturally while traveling."

Mom and o
CIEE Study Abroad alumna Kassi Oliver with her world-traveling daughter.

Kassi Oliver, from the University of Texas at Austin, studied abroad with CIEE in Legon, Ghana back in 2001. Sixteen years later, she still has a passion for international travel. Kassi currently serves as the national director of volunteer services for Hostelling International USA (HI USA) based out of Austin, Texas. She has worked for HI USA for six years now, pursuing their mission “to help all, especially the young, gain a greater understanding of the world and its people through hosteling.” HI USA runs hostels throughout the U.S. and also offers educational and engagement programs to hostel guests and community members in the local areas they serve, utilizing volunteers to help lead their programs. Working for HI USA, Kassi gets to ‘pay it forward’ to provide fun and welcoming environments that support international travelers’ cultural experiences, just like CIEE Study Abroad offered her in Ghana. We interviewed Kassi to learn more about her career and what she thinks about her CIEE Study Abroad experience now, sixteen years later:

What is your favorite memory of living in Ghana?

I have so many good memories of living in Ghana. I arrived to Accra a day early before the other CIEE students arrived. I remember staying at a beachside hotel where the staff were incredibly friendly. The hotel had windows open where the ocean breeze cooled off the room. I heard the waves crashing as I went to bed and I remember literally pinching myself asking, “Am I really here?” I just couldn't believe this dream was a reality.

Other great memories include:

  • Taking African drumming class at the university. Our class sat outside under a very large tree – we would sit in a circle and play.
  • We didn’t have classes on Fridays so every weekend my two new friends and I would travel and explore. We traveled all throughout Ghana and also went to all the surrounding countries: Togo, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. We were able to see it all!
  • The food: not everyone loved the food, but I LOVED it. Fried plantains were amazing and I loved the fufu and banku. While some of my classmates were losing weight, I was gaining it!

How did studying abroad with CIEE impact your life?

Ever since I was in junior high school, I dreamed of traveling to Africa. Going to college and choosing to study abroad with CIEE made that dream a reality. The experience taught me that if you really want to do something you can make it happen. I was able to find a great supportive program through CIEE and even received a travel scholarship through my local university. Traveling to Ghana definitely gave me the confidence to go on and do more traveling abroad – some on my own and some with friends. Now that I am a mom of a 3-year-old little girl, I want her to have the same zest for travel. She has been to 10 states and also left the country once. She even has her own Southwest Airlines miles account!

What are you doing now?

I am the director of volunteer services for Hostelling International USA (HI USA), a non-profit organization that operates over 50 hostels nationwide. Each year, we welcome travelers from more than 100 countries, and more than 1,600 volunteers play a big role in helping fulfill our purpose to create a more tolerant world.

In my role, I help support and grow our volunteer program and volunteer experience. A lot of our volunteers love volunteering with us because it allows them to be part of a diverse community of travelers and be alongside fellow travel enthusiasts. To learn more about volunteering with HI USA, check out www.hiusa.org/volunteer or email me at volunteer@hiusa.org. We always are looking for great new volunteers!

Me fountain - crop

What do you like the most about working in the tourism industry?

I feel very lucky that my job mixes my love of travel and my love of being a part of something bigger – something that is trying to make the world a better place. I love that at HI USA we help provide travel experiences for others through our travel scholarships programs.

How do you think studying abroad, travelling, and staying in community housing like hostels helps create a more tolerant world?

Travel leads to world peace. It’s easy to judge and hate when you don’t know someone or don’t understand their culture. If you travel to a different country and become a traveler (not a tourist) and immerse yourself in their culture through talking with people, eating their food, listening to their music (you know, all the good stuff!), you gain a respect and understanding for a new culture. You learn to appreciate and not judge. And it’s not even a forced process; building tolerance and being a less prejudiced person just starts to happen naturally while traveling.

The same things happen every day in our hostels as people from different counties either sit down to share a meal, grab a beer, or go on a bike tour together. Conversations start to flow. There are laughs. There are plans made to hang out later that day and friendships are formed. Ultimately tolerance and respect are created.

Family photo
Kassi traveling with family.

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