Born and raised in Chicago to parents who immigrated from India and Peru, Andrew Motiwalla had many immersive cultural travel experiences long before he became a Peace Corps volunteer.
But it was his time serving in northeastern Honduras (1996 to 1998), in a small town of 500 people called Jano, that would ultimately inspire him to create Discover Corps. Sensing that travelers are craving a more authentic people-to-people experience, he saw the company as an opportunity to give regular Americans a chance to have deeper, more meaningful experiences in developing countries.
Here, we get up close and personal with our founder, to learn more about the college professor who encouraged him to make the world a better place, how his Peace Corps experienced transformed him, and how he hopes to change the way people think about Volunteer Vacations.
You grew up with parents who immigrated from Peru and India. Can you talk about how that inspired your love of travel and exploring other cultures?
Growing up in a home of immigrant parents meant a lot of international travel, but it was not fun as a kid.
Visiting family in India and Pakistan entailed weeks with distant relatives I barely knew and eating foods that were too spicy for me. Similarly, trips to Peru involved late-night parties of people speaking Spanish and dancing, two things I did not enjoy as a kid.
As I matured, I became fascinated by these different cultures and eventually embraced them. Much to my mother’s delight, in college I independently moved to Peru for a few months to work in the Andes. It was during this international experience that I really became passionate about travel and global cultures.
You had a college professor who said you had the potential to make a big positive impact in the world. At what point did you realize that making a positive impact would become a lifelong passion for you?
One of the most important college professors I had was William Sloane Coffin.
He was a prominent civil rights activist, a Freedom Rider, and clergyman. His courses in the Religious Studies department at Lawrence University made a lasting impression on me and turned me onto a path of social justice.
It was he who suggested that I consider joining the Peace Corps, and he who told the president of the university that I was a student who would go on to make a difference in the world. Although he has passed away, his words stay with me today.
How did your Peace Corps experience in Honduras change you on a personal level?
I joined the Peace Corps as a young idealist who loved travel and learning about other cultures.
However, I was not aware of the complexities and challenges of international development. I quickly realized the inherent issues in a city boy from Chicago coming to teach farming to a Honduran community that had farmed for centuries.
From a professional perspective, I learned the importance of listening to local communities and working with them to devise a plan that they would own, but which I could help catalyze.
Personally, I learned how important relationship building is to the success of any project. While I was able to accomplish some significant projects during my two years, I am most proud of the relationships I formed with the people in my Honduran community.
There are hundreds of other Volunteer Vacation tour operators around the world. What is it about Discover Corps that makes it unique?
Most other international volunteer programs are focused solely on going overseas and doing volunteer work. For Discover Corps, the volunteer work is a way to connect with a community in an authentic way and learn first0hand about their reality.
But we believe it’s also important to understand the larger context of the community, so we include hands-on workshops, speakers, and excursions that allow travelers to enjoy the natural and cultural treasures of a region. The goal is to provide a fun, immersive vacation experience that transforms the traveler into a friend of the host community, and a lifelong advocate for the causes that they’ve learned about.
We understand that the most efficient way of accomplishing a project is not by sending international volunteers for a couple of weeks. But our goal is more than just finishing a project: We seek to build a large-scale movement of travelers who understand the world on a deeper level and advocate for causes based on their first-hand experience.
You’ve talked about helping travelers form deeper connections with the people and the places they visit during Discover Corps trips. How do you hope to see these immersive experiences transforming them?
Immersive experiences like those we offer allow travelers to truly understand the complexities of global issues.
The first step is to go beyond your preconceived politics or ideas about international development and truly absorb the situation. Most people find that issues are not as cut-and-dry as they think they are.
Secondly, we hope that travelers will learn from local communities. Americans often think they’re going to “help” people in other countries. While we completely support volunteering as a form of solidarity, we also want to expose our travelers to inspirational local leaders who are already doing great grassroots work in their communities.
It is at this point that our travelers become advocates and champions for the causes they are part of during their Discover Corps experience.
Discover Corps has grown and evolved quite a bit in its first few years. What’s your vision for the future?
While volunteer travel is gaining more acceptance, it’s still a niche segment of the travel market.
I’d like to change the perception of volunteer travel in the marketplace so that people understand that it’s really more about having an authentic travel experience that changes the perceptions of the traveler and also builds solidarity with worthwhile causes around the world.
Instead of conjuring up images of a grueling week of toil and uncomfortable lodging, these trips can be enjoyable, fun, rejuvenating, and inspiring. In order to reach more people, we plan to develop more trips that appeal to a wide range of issues that people care about. Hopefully they’ll want to join a trip in order to learn more about that issue first-hand. –Bret Love