In the summer of 2005, Cornell men’s lacrosse player Mike Pisco ’06 took a service trip to Ocotal, Nicaragua as part of the Cornell Traditions program. At the time, the trip to teach English and share his love of lacrosse had a profound impact on the All-Ivy defenseman. But little did he know that the trip would plant the seed for a future business and a whole new way of life.
Just short of eight years later, Pisco was visiting his parents with his wife, former Big Red volleyball player Kathryn, CALS ’05. On the visit, he saw a high school friend, now a financial adviser that told the couple about a client who was quitting his job to travel the world for a year. The next day, on the plane ride back to Chicago, Kathryn expressed a thought that would set the Piscos on a new path.
“She just said, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ And immediately, I said, ‘Well we can.’ And it just snowballed from there,” explained Pisco. “The more we thought about it, the more we realized that we were fortunate to both have the interest to do it, and fortunate enough to financially be able to do it and to be in a position in our careers were we felt like we could come back and get jobs again. As soon as she asked me, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ I was sold and ready to go.”
As the couple continued to discuss the possibility of taking this once-in-a-lifetime journey, they made the important decision that if they were to travel the world, they should add a service component to the trip. Eventually, the couple mapped out a voyage that would last nine months and span 20 different countries, with five separate volunteer projects.
While the trip itself exceeded their wildest expectations, they also had a great deal of frustration as they realized that many volunteer placement agencies were more interested in making money than actually helping the communities they were supposed to serve.
“We saw so many glaring issues with the volunteer industry as it stands now that we both thought we should do something about it,” said Pisco. “Whether it affects five people or 500 people on a yearly basis or on a forever basis, we just want to know that we’ve put our time and effort into making an impact.”
And with that, the couple returned to Chicago and in April 2014 established Unearth The World (UTW), a global service-learning organization that pairs travelers with international nonprofits to promote cross-cultural learning and transformative travel.
Kathryn runs the business full-time, while Mike returned to his job in medical device sales to help pay the bills while the company grows.
“We decided to stay small and grow slowly so if a potential volunteer asks us a question we are very in-tune,” explained Pisco. “A lot of companies in the industry have 100 or more potential partners to send volunteers to. So the questions are: how can they have that many? Do they know the project that well? Do they really know what that community needs? Are they good, mutually beneficial projects for the community as well as the volunteer? So when we add projects there is extensive research on our end. We spend months doing Skype calls, Facetime and emails until we feel comfortable that it’s an organization that has similar objectives to ours. Then we physically go and spend a week or two to make sure we get the full experience and can really understand what they’re doing. It’s a very vetted out process.”
Another element that separates UTW from other volunteer placement agencies is the support and educational component it provides to its volunteers. UTW attempts to immerse its volunteers in a pre-trip Global Service Learning training curriculum to fully prepare them for the experience. Prior to the trip, they provide the volunteer with five thematic training modules.
“It’s a robust training curriculum,” said Pisco. “We focus on cultural awareness, what cultural exchange is like, power and privilege, and understanding expectations when you go to a different developing country and how their society is different than ours.”
The value behind the training is to help set the proper expectations for the volunteers.
“So many volunteers go in thinking they’re going to change the world in seven days,” explained Pisco. “So it’s about educating people so they have the right expectations and they aren’t let down, and at the same time preparing them to be better volunteers so the local organizations get the most out of them.”
And the education doesn’t stop when the volunteer returns. UTW works with the volunteers post-trip to understand how they can continue to engage in meaningful service when they return, how they can position their international experience on a resume, and how they can draw on what they’ve learned and use it in their everyday life.
To help with the education portion, UTW has worked with Dr. Richard Kiely, who serves as the director of Engaged Learning + Research at Cornell. He has served as an advisor and speaks with Kathryn on a regular basis as the couple looks to separate itself from the other volunteer placement agencies.
“We would love to be a big enough company where we’re both doing it full-time, because it’s something both Kathryn and I are passionate about,” Pisco said. “In the first year, we had five volunteers and three of them were my sister and her friends. The next 12 months, we had 70 volunteers. We’re just trying to expand this as much as possible. There is so much value you can get out of the experience, as an individual or as a group. And an experience like this really can help shape a person. I’m hopeful that five years from now we can both be doing this full-time and reaching hundreds of people, and getting the message out that there are ways to do this that are both ethically and morally responsible.”
UTW currently works with five organizations supporting programs in Ghana, Zambia, Peru and Nicaragua, and the organization is always looking for more projects that they consider sustainable and mutually beneficial. The search has even taken Mike back to familiar territory as he returned last January to Nicaragua where UTW now has two partners. During this trip, the Piscos visited Mike’s host family in Ocotal.
“We stayed for a couple nights with the family that I had lived with in college,” he said. “Kat knew about Nicaragua because I talk about my experience and how much I learned from the trip all the time. But it really came full circle for her, and it was very cool to think that 10 years ago when I spent the summer down there — in a way that’s how this whole thing started. And now I just want to help others to grow and have a similar life-changing experience.”
To read more about Mike and Kathryn’s journey, visit HERE.
To learn more about volunteering with Unearth The World, visit HERE.