The Hero’s Journey


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At three years old, Tiffany Rhodes had no time for training wheels on her brand-new bike.

“I told my grandfather I wanted them off by the time I got home from preschool,” she says. Her mother saw that she meant business, and her grandfather had the bike ready when she returned that afternoon. It was love instantly. “I took off on this tiny little bike, and that was it,” says Rhodes.

As an associate professor of Adventure and Sustainable Tourism in the College of Hospitality Management since 2016, Rhodes approaches her work in the same spirit, whether leading a classroom discussion on ecotourism policy or biking with students down Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador. Drawing on an eclectic background in biology, humanitarian aid and extreme sports, she is driven by her love of travel and nature, but even more so by the potential for education and tourism to create social, economic and environmental change. “Tourism can be an incredible tool to confront many of our global problems, from wealth inequality to wildlife preservation,” says Rhodes. “Along with education, it’s one of the most powerful tools for making a difference in the world.”

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Rhodes dreamed of following in the footsteps of conservation heroes Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey. During her senior year as a biology major, she traveled to Africa as part of a research expedition to study elephant and rhinoceros populations in Kenya and Uganda, an experience that was life-changing in a way she hadn’t anticipated.

Far from home, she encountered communities where people contended with food scarcity and a lack of clean water. “I had seen poverty on television, but I had never seen abject poverty
face to face,” she says. “It changed my humanity, and it changed my direction in life.”

Upon returning home, she pursued her doctorate in cross-cultural studies with a goal to work in humanitarian aid, traveling to war-torn regions and paying for school in part by spending summers as an adventure tour guide and environmental educator, eventually taking a job as a high school science teacher. “I thought I would do it for one year to pay off my loans, but I fell in love with education and being a teacher,” says Rhodes. Much like jumping on a bike for the first time, she was all in.

Profile picture of Tiffany Rhodes

The impact Associate Professor Tiffany Rhodes has on her students extends beyond the classroom and global treks. She emboldens them to consider their place in the world, both professionally and personally.

The College of Hospitality Management is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a meaningful milestone as the industry reflects and reinvents itself amid the pandemic. For many in the travel and tourism field, shutdowns highlighted the need for a more sustainable future — values that International Travel and Tourism Studies Chair Michael Sabitoni ’82, ’92 M.S. and department faculty like Rhodes have held since long before the pandemic hit.

From green transport to protecting cultural assets, students in the program are dedicated to travel and tourism as a means to support and sustain communities. “We’ve seen the ugly side of tourism, where people overuse a place without respect for it,” he says. “We want to educate students in tourism that is about responsible stewardship.”

Sabitoni, who also chairs Food & Beverage Industry Management, cites experiential learning as one of the college’s signature strengths. Immersive FAM Tours are a stand-out example: familiarization trips where students in the Tour Management Operations course research a destination, plan daily itineraries and lead each other on a weeklong tour.

“Over the past decade, we’ve moved away from over-touristed destinations and embraced small group travel in places like Ecuador and Peru,” says Sabitoni. Partnering with like-minded companies such as GAdventures, founded by CEO Bruce Poon Tip ’22 Hon., Sabitoni cites FAM Tours not only as a vital effort toward responsible tourism and education, but also as a defining moment in students’ futures. “When the students are interviewed about their FAM Tour experience, they use the term ‘life-changing’,” says Sabitoni. “Every time, you can see that they are speaking from the heart.”

He credits faculty members such as Rhodes, who led a FAM Tour to Costa Rica this past spring, for creating such impactful student experiences. “Tiffany is so passionate about the industry, and the students appreciate that,” Sabitoni says. “They can see that she lives what she teaches and they want to live that too.”

Group of JWU students in front of historic Ecuador church

Rhodes tells students like this group in Ecuador, “Be open and curious about a place, and put the locals before yourself.”

Before the Costa Rica FAM Tour, Claire Lisbo ’22 never considered herself a thrill-seeker, but she discovered her adventurous streak at some point between wobbling across a hanging bridge and plunging into an eight-foot canyon. (“I didn’t tell anyone, but I did not know how to swim before this trip,” she says.)

Amid white-faced capuchin monkey encounters and local gallo pinto breakfasts, she and classmates traded ghost stories in candlelit hot springs and rode horses into the sunset at a rescue farm. Reflecting on the trip’s many highlights, Lisbo counts a simple chat with Rhodes, sitting at a restaurant in the beach town of Quebos, among her meaningful moments. “She will bring you out of your comfort zone and be there to support you,” says Lisbo. “When she talks about the things she has done and the life she’s lived, it makes you think that you can do that too.”

Tourism can be an incredible tool to confront many of our global problems, from wealth inequality to wildlife preservation. Along with education, it’s one of the most powerful tools for making a difference in the world. Associate Professor Tiffany Rhodes

She isn’t the only one of Rhodes’s students who can’t help but feel inspired by her infectious spirit. After a thoughtful lesson about “thick” description in a graduate seminar, Rhodes reveals during a short break that she has taught herself to play ACDC’s “Back in Black” on the drums, and the students offer instruments they could play alongside her (tambourine, cello, cowbell) in a theoretical jam session.

“She makes you think about the kind of person you want to be in the world,” says Katie Horrigan ’19, a master’s student who has known Rhodes for seven years. “She has so much integrity and kindness. I learned from her that no matter where you are in the world, the way you treat people is a global language.”

Rhodes is a natural mentor outside of the classroom as well. As a longtime adventure tourism guide, she regularly leads trips for women, something she felt inspired to do after watching a fellow mountain biker hit a black-diamond trail, leaving his novice-rider girlfriend in his wake. “I realized that maybe girls need to teach girls,” Rhodes says with a laugh. “I love working with women so we can go back to our work spaces and families and rise to certain challenges that give us pause.” She sees the role of a tour guide as akin to guiding a hero’s journey, encouraging and empowering others while paving the way — from monitoring weather and resolving conflicts, to managing risks and restaurant reservations — behind the scenes.

Despite her high-octane determination (in addition to her goal to read 40 books this year, she is pursuing a second Ph.D., in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management), Rhodes takes leisure seriously. “The Greeks were major philosophers about what makes a good life,” she says. “It really is the most important question: How do you spend your time?”

Since moving to Rhode Island, she has picked up paddle-boarding, often accompanied by her two bulldogs, Tazo and Indie, riding along in life vests. (Indie, named partly in tribute to Indiana Jones, regularly can be spotted tucked into a carrier, goggles on, atop her bike on cruises along the East Bay.) Mountain-biking is her first love, but Rhodes loves rock climbing, snorkeling, snowboarding or even quiet strolls in the woods — anything that gets her into nature. “Nature is so healing and important to our mental wellness,” she says. “I encourage students to find something they love to do outdoors. It doesn’t have to be hardcore.”

Two images of students in Morocco; at left students ride camels and at right a student stand in front of a mosque

Immersive familiarization trips called FAM tours like this one in Morocco bring students to roads less traveled and increase awareness around responsible tourism.

Rhodes hasn’t kept count of how many countries she’s visited. She has watched a female mountain gorilla snap a banana tree with one arm in Uganda, met genocide survivors in the Cambodian killing fields, camped under the stars in the Sahara desert, and flipped a whitewater raft in the Zambezi River in waters home to crocodiles. (“But they were young crocodiles,” she says.)

She doesn’t always take pictures (“You don’t want to live behind the camera”), but memories are vivid, along with her dedication to the changes she believes are possible through tourism — poverty alleviation, wildlife conservation and preservation of natural spaces are three closest to her heart — and the hope that her students will feel inspired to be part of those changes. “

Education opens our minds and expands our opportunities,” says Rhodes. “Travel does that too. I love when my students see that there is beauty in every culture.” Including her own. In the summers, she’s likely to be found in an RV, exploring territories closer to home. Wherever she goes, this might be her greatest travel tip: “Be open and curious about a place, and put the locals before yourself.” All over the world, she lives what she teaches.

Students and Professor Rhodes in Egypt in front of pharaohs

Students run the FAM trips, from researching the destination to planning itineraries to leading each other on tours.

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