Fifty years of extraordinary





Stretching for thousands of miles across Northern China, the series of defensive walls and towers that make up the Great Wall was constructed over centuries by successive Chinese dynasties. Punctuated by sharp ascensions, sheer drop-offs and crumbling sections and separated by mountains and rivers, the winding wall is the largest manmade structure ever built.

It’s an iconic destination for travelers—one of the most visited tourist sites in the world. But in 1978, the Great Wall wasn’t on every traveler’s bucket list. The People’s Republic of China had only recently opened tourism to the West when Stanford Travel/Study brought the first group of non-official delegates to the Great Wall, led by emeritus professor Lyman Van Slyke, a pioneering historian of modern China.

The Travel/Study program began in 1968, at a time when Stanford, like many universities, was the site of student unrest. Rixford Snyder, ’30, MA ’34, PhD ’40, historian and retired dean of admissions, had recently taken over programming for the alumni summer college. He had the idea to hold the summer program on a riverboat in Europe—alumni and their families would listen to lectures while cruising the Rhine River.

That trip inspired a whole program of international travel led by Stanford faculty. Combining travel with continuing education, it was different from anything other travel companies were offering. Peter Voll, ’65, Travel/Study’s director from 1974 to 1992, described planning trips in those early days to the Stanford Oral History Project in 2011:

“It was like theater, educational theater, producing a film or a documentary. We needed to set the destination, then you had to have a story line, the scenario. We wanted to have something like a beginning, a middle and an end, a theme. Then we needed to have someone who wrote the script. We needed some actors, who were the faculty. The secondary team of actors were guides, the local guides, who were critical. They’re the ambassadors of their countries and they’re the teachers of the local lore and history, customs and traditions.”

Travelers taking in the scenery on the 1968 Rhine River College

Travelers taking in the scenery on the 1968 Rhine River College trip.


…they decided to take the faculty, put them on a riverboat on the Rhine River, creating a “floating campus” for 75-80 alumni families. It was a big success and established a model for the future of Travel/Study.

Peter Voll, ’65

Travel/Study Director, 1974–1992


Today, faculty leaders come from all disciplines and work with the Travel/Study team to shape trips that offer alumni deep learning about the world in a unique context, whether it’s hearing emeritus classics professor Marsh McCall reading from Aeschylus’ “The Oresteia” while standing in Taormina’s ancient Greek theater overlooking Mount Etna, or helping anthropology professor John Rick excavate his dig at Chavin de Huantar—an archeological site of pre-Incan ruins and artifacts in Peru.

Learning in luxury: The Stanford Alumni Almanac described the 1968 Rhine riverboat tour as “a new type of adult education called the ‘summer alumni college.’”


“You can lecture to undergrads, you can use slides if you want, but there’s a special kick to lecturing to alums in the very venues that you’re talking about,” says Bert Patenaude, MA ’79, PhD ’87, research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a lecturer in history and international relations. “Being in Vienna, looking out the windows at the city scape and talking about how Vienna was the mighty city of a mighty empire . . . there’s nothing like leaving the lecture room and walking out into the city and hearing, ’Oh yeah, that’s what Bert was talking about.’”

From its inception, the Travel/Study program strove to break new ground. The program was among the first to bring tourist and alumni groups to China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Libya and Antarctica. Each member of the Travel/Study team leads trips all over the world; the transfer of knowledge among the staff from trip to trip is a strong part of the institutional culture.

“When you travel you are always prepared for the unexpected,” says Kara Cronk, senior marketing manager and trip leader. “Those are skills that translate anywhere, no matter where you are.”

Such as in 2007, when a group stopped in Yemen to await a ship that was traveling from the Seychelles along the north coast of Africa. Pirates hijacked the ship before it reached Yemen, taking the crew hostage. The group made a change of plans, traveling overland through Saudi Arabia to Jordan.

While every trip leader has a story of a trip gone not-exactly according to plan, safety and security are the Travel/Study team’s paramount priority. The staff continually scouts destinations and maintains a watch list of 140 countries. Director Brett Thompson, ’83, receives security briefings every morning.


As our trips passed through America’s heartland it was a sight to behold—the Delta Queen steaming along the river, the calliope playing “Come Join the Band,” drawing everyone within earshot to see the steamboat a-comin.’

Brett Thompson, ’83

Travel/Study Director, 2005–present


Top of the world

In the early 1990s, Travel/Study director Peter Voll, ’65, heard the siren call of the North Pole. At the time, only a small cadre of scientists and extreme adventurers had visited these remote reaches of the Arctic, and 90°N remained something of a holy grail in the history of geographic exploration. The only way to reach it was aboard the Sovetskiy Soyuz, a Soviet nuclear powered icebreaker that was newly available for charter after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The ship was powered by two thermonuclear reactors using enriched uranium rods and could spend four years at sea between charges of the reactor core.

The Travel/Study team chartered the vessel, which was staffed by a military crew of 145. Geologist Gary Ernst, emeritus professor of earth sciences and one of the trip’s faculty leaders, remembers his experiences aboard the icebreaker:

Three days crashing through the 3- to 4-meters thick pack ice to reach the Pole, and then almost three more days retracing our path back to blue water and eventually to the home port of Murmansk was a truly unique experience. The 45,000-ton icebreaker was a seagoing marvel, constructed in Helsinki. We passengers had free access to the bridge and to the very accommodating, informative Russian crew. As part of our study program, each of five lecturers gave several talks in the small auditorium. An auditorium on an icebreaker?  Yes, a cavernous room nestled in the bow of the lowest deck served as our lecture room. Imagine crashing through the pack ice with the ship’s ice knife, the keel, directly below us. We all felt as if we were enclosed in a large steel drum with a gorilla pounding on the sides of the drum with a sledgehammer! Difficult to hear? Quite! But virtually all the passengers attended each and every talk—after all, it was the only game in town during the trip into and back from the pack ice covering the Arctic Ocean.

The Sovetskiy Soyuz breaking ice.

The Sovetskiy Soyuz breaking ice.
Photo credit: Joel Simon, ’74, MS ’84


There was no darkness during the night—and we could expect none for at least 2 weeks.

The Log of the Stanford Voyage to the North Pole, 1992


The itinerary included exploration of Franz Josef Land, an archipelago comprised of 192 islands now part of the Russian Arctic National Park. The ice-covered islands are home to sea birds, walruses and polar bears. Zodiacs allowed for closer encounters with arctic flora and fauna; two onboard helicopters were used for aerial sightseeing and allowed the crew to navigate a path through the ice.

In his nearly two decades as director of Stanford/Travel Study, Peter Voll grew the program from two trips per year to 44. His thirst for firsts led alumni travelers to the farthest corners of the globe—including to the North Pole in 1992.
Photos by Joel Simon, ’74, MS ’84

Doorways to the past

On the west bank of the life-giving Nile River lies the Valley of the Kings, burial ground of pharaohs including Tutankhamun and Ramses II. The passages that lead down into burial chambers in the decorated royal tombs offer visitors a glimpse of the symbolic journey from the world of the living to the world of the dead.

Go to web site to view the video.

The Nile Program introduced alumni to the history and sites of Egypt, from the Great Pyramids of Giza to the tombs of Luxor Valley and beyond.

As with all Travel/Study destinations, the focus of the Nile program isn’t just on sightseeing but on gaining insight into the past in order to better understand the present. Stanford connections open doors for appreciating Egypt’s spectacular sights in the context of both ancient history and the modern era.

Making the most of Stanford alumni and faculty connections worldwide is a part of Travel/Study trips from their earliest conception. Alumni travelers have met with Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who was elected the first president of the newly independent Republic of Armenia in 1991, and with Peru’s president, Alejandro Toledo, MA ’72, MA ’74, PhD ’93, during a visit to Peru in 2005.

A caparisoned camel looks on with the Great Pyramids of Giza in the background.

A caparisoned camel looks on with the Great Pyramids of Giza in the background.
Photo credit: Jesus Beltran, ’00

Stanford travelers at the foot of the Sphinx on the 2013 Nile College.

Stanford travelers at the foot of the Sphinx on the 2013 Nile College.
Photo credit: Jesus Beltran, ’00

Travel/Study travelers have had private views of Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia Gallery in Florence and of Rodin’s workshop outside Paris. On an upcoming Nile riverboat tour, alumni will visit the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo to browse the more than 100,000 artifacts, including the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb, before the museum opens.

They’ll take a private tour of a recently excavated tomb and enter the paws of the Sphinx, an area not open to the public. Also on the itinerary: A visit to the U.S. embassy for insight into American foreign policy, and a reception with alumni living in Cairo for a chance to hear firsthand about the changes in the country since the 2011 revolution.

From 1986 to 2009 Travel/Study produced lapel pins that were given out to participants on the last night of their trip. The pins were designed to commemorate specific trips, types of trips, particular destinations and sometimes world events.

Field study

Today, Travel/Study takes alumni on 60 trips each year, covering as many as 80 countries. The program’s offerings include trips for families with children, staffed with “young explorer leaders”—recent grads who are trained Sierra Camp counselors. Another popular category of trips is the field seminar, which brings alumni and current students together in a living laboratory.

Alumni and current students study evolution and sustainability in the Galápagos with Professor William Durham, ’71.

The Travel/Study field seminar was the brainchild of anthropological sciences professor Bill Durham, ’71. Durham wanted to combine the “sophomore college” experience—designed to give undergrads access to professors on a smaller scale—with the alumni travel experience. Twelve students, chosen from hundreds of applicants from all disciplines, spend a week with Professor Durham in lectures on evolution and the environmental history of the Galápagos Islands. Alumni join them on campus for their own 2-day crash course on the Galápagos. The group then flies to Ecuador and takes a chartered ship on a week-long tour of the islands.

A typical expedition ashore involves hiking the black lava landscape and getting close to the islands’ unique wildlife, including giant tortoises, Galápagos penguins, and blue-footed boobies. Back on the ship in the evenings, the students do the lecturing, presenting papers they’ve prepared to the group.

Early field study trips were so well received that a group of alumni created an endowment to pay for students’ travel expenses, ensuring that all undergraduates would have access to the opportunity. Alumni and current students learning together is a unique experience that makes field study trips unlike any others, says Leslie Kim, ’98, senior product development manager and trip leader, who has accompanied Professor Durham on field study trips to the Galápagos and Costa Rica. By the end, she says, lifelong, multigenerational friendships have been made and connections have been forged. And alumni have gotten a window into what it’s like to be a student at Stanford today.

What lies ahead

The world has gotten smaller in the last 50 years. Travelers have grown accustomed to seeking out ever more hidden and unreachable places. It has become harder, says Thompson, to find destinations for the Travel/Study program to be “first.” But the team may have found one of the last places on the planet where alumni groups have never gone: the geographic South Pole, located on a moving ice sheet at the southernmost tip of the Earth’s surface.

Properly outfitted for the extreme temperatures on Antarctica.

Properly outfitted for the extreme temperatures on Antarctica.
Photo credit: Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions

On the runway at Union Glacier Camp, Antarctica.

On the runway at Union Glacier Camp, Antarctica.
Photo credit: Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions

In early 2019, Travel/Study will take a group of 14 alumni, led by earth system science professor Rob Dunbar and expert mountaineering guides, on a two-week trip to Antarctica—the most arid, isolated continent on Earth. Preparations for the trip will begin more than a year in advance, with two training camps that will assess participants’ ability to endure the rigors of the trip. In conditions similar to those they’ll face in Antarctica, they’ll learn to work as a team, setting up and breaking down camp and cross-country skiing in a line while towing 75-pound sleds.

The training complete, the team will fly from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Union Glacier Basecamp and then on to the 89th parallel. From there they will cross-country ski the remaining 60 miles to the South Pole.

Polar boot camp: South Pole hopefuls will undergo rigorous conditioning before making the trip.


Epic is not a word that gets thrown around lightly by the Travel/Study program staff, but this trip will push new boundaries for both the program and the participants. Expedition members will have to pass physical and psychological screenings—another Travel/Study first. The “right stuff” for this trip, says Travel/Study’s program manager Nick Mangini, is more than being in the physical condition to trek 60 miles in temperatures hovering around -30°F, and more than having the mental fortitude to endure the relentless monotony of 23 hours of daylight in blinding white-out conditions, with no one but the voice inside your own head for company.

Success will also require a deep and abiding passion for adventure and a determined intellectual hunger. “It’s having a combination of the spirit of Shackleton and Darwin, and the ability to be observant and also introspective,” says Mangini. “That’s the kind of person who will thrive on a trip like this.”

Stanford travelers are intrepid and curious, driven by a deep commitment to understanding how the world works, Thompson says, and facilitating transformative ways for alumni to experience the world is what makes the program unique. “They’re not content to learn about the world just from books, newspapers and websites. They want to see and experience it themselves.”


Story Credits

Writer: Charity Ferreira

Photography: Joel Simon

Art Direction: Erin Sonnenschein

User Experience Developer: Forrest Glick

Special Thanks: John Holleman and Kevin Garcia


Joel Simon, ’74, MS ’84, photographer and trip leader, has documented nearly 100 Stanford Travel/Study trips since 1980.

Image of Joel Simon, ’74, MS ’84


Joel Simon, ’74, MS ’84, photographer and trip leader, has documented more than 100 Stanford Travel/Study trips since 1980. “One of my goals has always been to help people become comfortable enough in the water that they can discover and learn about the marine wilderness environment for themselves. That, to me, embodies the Travel/Study experience.”


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