During a year-long trip to Brazil in 2006, Elizabeth Mellen caught the highly-infectious travel bug. She hasn’t been able to shake it — and doesn’t want to.
In fact, Mellen hopes she finds a career in which she can continue to travel and use her language skills.
Mellen returned to Danville in late July after spending six months as a volunteer in Quito, Ecuador. Last week, she moved to Houston, and will look for a job in the oil industry.
She also has studied in Peru.
“It’s very humbling and eye-opening,” she said of her travels to other countries. She advises other young people to take advantage of study-abroad opportunities.
Growing up in Danville was like being in a bubble, she said. So, when she graduated from Danville High School in 2006, she jumped at a chance to study in Brazil.
Mellen spent a year in Belo, Horizonte, Brazil, as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. She learned Portuguese while living with her host family, traveled a lot and learned about the culture.
“That sparked my interest,” she said. “I caught the travel bug.”
Back in the United States, she attended the University of Kentucky at Lexington, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations. In the summer of 2010, she spent two months studying Incan civilization and Spanish in Cusco, Peru.
It didn’t take long before she and a friend decided they wanted to do volunteer work overseas, and began researching organizations. Careful to avoid scams, they settled on United Planet, affiliated with the International Cultural Youth Exchange Federation.
In January, she was assigned as a preschool teacher in a neighborhood in Quito, helping to teach day-care students ages 6 months to 2 years. There were 25 children in her class, and she often was left alone with them.
However, Mellen said she was able to communicate with the youngsters, and was surprised at how quickly they picked up English.
“It was very cool to see how far they came in six months,” she said. They went from simple words, such as “hi,” to complete sentences.
She received a monthly stipend, with food and housing included.
On weekends, she did a lot of traveling, and especially fell in love with the gorgeous beaches. She also visited the Galapagos Islands, and saw sharks and a huge sea turtle while snorkeling, sea lions and odd birds such as the blue-footed boobies.
Her parents, Tom and Nanette Mellen, visited her in Quito; Tom is a Danville attorney and Nanette is retired superintendent of the Danville School District 118.
The parents stayed in an eco-lodge with a thatched roof, no heat or air conditioning and imposed time limits on showers — all part of being ecologically friendly.
Tom remarked on his daughter’s travels, saying, “She’s far more adventuresome than I ever was. I marvel at her adaptability and the way she can adapt in countries where you don’t speak the language.”
“I feel more comfortable doing this (traveling overseas) than moving to Houston,” Elizabeth joked.
In Ecuador, she was amazed at the diverse ecological system — from the mountains to the beaches and the islands. In the town of Mindo, she could do hiking, zip lining and swimming in the waterfalls.
She also made friends with other students from Germany, Sweden and Iceland.
Looking back, she said, “Brazil is my favorite country by far. The people have a great attitude. In South America, people are more about enjoying life and more family oriented.”
In her new life in Houston, Mellen will be looking for a job in the oil industry or as a freelance interpreter.
“I would like to find a job that would let me travel and use my language skills,” she said.
Mellen is the youngest of five children; the others are Tom of Hamilton, Ohio, Dawn of Tampa, Fla., Alex of Houston and Chris of Dallas.
To learn more, visit the website http://www.unitedplanet.org