Episode 62 │ Open Your Mouth (PACKS LIGHT)
"I loved it so much, and to think that fear could've prevented me from having the best experience of my life would have been so tragic. So if anything, that taught me to trust myself even more and trust the world even more." (Gabby, Episode 62)
After celebrating Young, Gifted and Abroad's 2nd anniversary last month, we're back with regular episodes! This week we're kicking things off with Gabby Beckford, a travel blogger and entrepreneur whose blog and brand are called Packs Light. She was suggested to me some months back by Danielle Desir (an acquaintance from WOC Podcasters), and thankfully when I reached out to Gabby, she accepted the invitation!
Both of Gabby's parents have spent over 20 years in careers that involve moving around a lot (mom is a travel agent and dad was an active duty Marine), so she was exposed to travel from a young age. Her dad's military orders had the family traveling a lot within the U.S., and they relocated to Okinawa, Japan when Gabby was 6 years old. They moved back to the States when she was 10, and during those years in Okinawa she took Japanese lessons, she interacted with Japanese students in her military school, and her dad remarried an Okinawan woman. As a biracial woman who spent such formative years in Japan, even now Gabby has a hard time answering where she's from or what she is culturally when people ask. Still, she appreciates the experience she had of having Okinawan culture so integrated into her life as a child.
Gabby has always enjoyed writing, but for a long time she didn't expect to be regarded as a storyteller or be able to pursue a creative career. A little teenage rebelliousness began to change that. After graduating from high school in a small Virginia town, she was ready to break out. She'd already been accepted to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and so she called her university and "forced" her way onto a two-week backpacking trip in Iceland run by VCU's Outdoor Activities Program that summer. (She was told that technically she could join the trip even if she hadn't started classes yet, but her parents needed to sign a permission slip since she was still a minor.) At 17 years old, she was the youngest in the group, and for much of the trip she was "miserable". It was extremely cold, she mistakenly didn't bring a sleeping bag (another girl on the trip shared hers with Gabby the entire time), and she hadn't realized how exhausting it would be to hike the 40 miles they covered over a few days.
And yet, experiencing something new and having all her senses engaged in Iceland made Gabby feel "ten times happier" than being at home in Virginia. She'd felt randomly but strongly compelled to go on the trip in the beginning, and now she realized that she definitely wanted to do even more traveling! This also became an opportunity for her to do more writing. After the trip, she received so many of the same questions from her high school friends about how she did it and what Iceland was like that she wrote a couple blog posts about these things just so people would stop asking. But as she traveled more, people kept asking questions, and so Gabby kept writing. That blog she first started as teenager later evolved into what is now Packs Light.
Cut to her junior year at VCU, and Gabby was doing a summer internship while looking forward to graduating at the end of the following semester. By this point she had done spring break trips to London and Puerto Rico, so she knew how to travel solo and didn't believe that studying abroad had much to offer that she couldn't make happen for herself. But during a slow day during that internship, she decided to google study abroad scholarships just to see what would come up; maybe there'd be a short and simple program she could do. Among her findings was the Boren Award for International Study. This scholarship pays for undergraduate and graduate students to study a critical language in the country of their choosing for a year, in exchange for working at any U.S. government agency for at least a year after graduation. Even though international relations was not Gabby's main interest (she majored in mathematics), she seemed to be one of the candidate types that Boren was targeting: a person of color, pursuing a STEM degree, who wanted to go to a non-Western country and learn a non-Western language. By the time Gabby learned about Boren there were only two weeks left before the deadline (candidates often spend months on their application), and so she applied just to see what would happen. She didn't expect to be selected—but then she was! So she pushed her graduation plans back a year and was off to Dubai, United Arab Emirates at the age of 21.
From 2016 to 2017 Gabby studied at the American University in Dubai (AUD), learning Modern Standard Arabic and taking classes toward completing her math degree. She also earned a minor in Middle Eastern studies during this time. She chose Dubai because she figured she wouldn't have been able to afford going there by herself, and this was her chance to not only go fully-funded but also with all of the logistics handled for her. It would've taken her so much more time and effort to meet people and get acclimated if she had to plan and arrange everything herself. Moving to Dubai for a year was like "jumping off a cliff" or "jumping into cold water" because even though Gabby was excited about this grand opportunity, she knew next to nothing about Middle Eastern culture or Islam. But she went anyway with an openness to learn and an eagerness try everything, trusting that "I'm smart enough to figure everything out as it comes to me". She was not disappointed!
When I asked Gabby to describe Dubai, she said it was "a place where anything can happen". From riding camels in the desert, to being invited onto a giant yacht, to even simply accompanying her classmates on excursions to the mall, Gabby kept finding herself in delightfully new and unexpected situations. Reflecting on all of the serendipitous occurrences she experienced during this time—including getting the Boren Award in the first place—makes her feel like age 21 was her "golden year". And of course, she didn't stay put. Dubai's location and the cheap flights that were available at the time meant that she was easily able to visit Sri Lanka, Oman, Georgia, Thailand, and the Netherlands from her temporary home base of the UAE.
"Riding the wave"
To this day Gabby says that her Dubai experience changed her life, and it changed her approach to blogging as well. She observed that there were many influencers in Dubai who were extremely successful but not providing much value or education to their audience. Seeing an angle to hone in on, she realized that using her platform to provide resources and encourage people to go for their dreams could be a way for her to build a business out of her passion for travel blogging. So now, a mature feature of Packs Light is the funded travel opportunities list that Gabby created and updates on a regular basis. With this, she informs her followers about programs, competitions, grants, and other opportunities that make partially or fully-funded travel a possibility for all kinds of people. She maintains that a key step toward fulfilling one's desires is to talk about them; if you can say what you want, that means you've committed to it internally, and you're ready to say "yes" to it when the time comes. While it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to put her list together, most of the opportunities she includes in it come her way (she "manifests" them) as a result of her talking about travel and scholarships so much online and offline. "Just putting what you want out into the universe, someone's gonna answer eventually."
Gabby spent one week in Seoul, South Korea with the ASEAN Youth Friendship Network (AYFN) in January 2020, and was working as a data engineer until March 2020 when she officially went full-time as a travel blogger. This was a calculated risk that she'd been planning for a while, and she hoped to travel the world for a year, but of course she couldn't have predicted that the coronavirus pandemic would largely bring international travel to a halt. Nevertheless, she doesn't regret her decision to quit her job, and is committed to "riding the wave" and trusting the divine plan until she can get out there again. In the meantime she's been investing more into her blog, keeping up with her opportunities list, and continuing to develop her skills as a content creator. Gabby can be found at packslight.com, and on all social media as @packslight (Instagram / Twitter / Facebook). She can also be reached at email@example.com.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Open Your Mouth (PACKS LIGHT)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
"Why More People Should Practice Delusional Confidence" (Gabby's TED Talk)
VCU Outdoor Adventure Program (homepage / Iceland / 2013 Iceland video)
VCU National Scholarship Office (homepage / Gabby's profile)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.