College student works at elephant sanctuary in Thailand

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — Cleaning feet and swabbing ears may not be how many college students envision spending their summers.

But for Stephanie Rubino, it was a dream come true.

Since her childhood, the Bridgewater College senior has day dreamed of helping animals. Throughout the years, Rubino’s preferred career has shifted only slightly from veterinarian to veterinary technician.

“They’re like the equivalent of nurses for humans,” Rubino of Williamsburg said.

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This past summer, the 21-year-old got firsthand experience working with animals, but some of them were a bit bigger than she’s used to.

Rubino spent two weeks volunteering at animal rescue sites in Thailand. One was an elephant sanctuary 71 elephants call home.

“A lot of them had different wounds for being in the trekking camps they had been rescued from and the logging industry,” she said. “There were some elephants who had severe foot injuries from stepping on a land mine.”

Many African and Asian cultures admire elephants for their strength and wisdom. They’re also a common sight in Thailand.

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“Elephants are … everywhere and are respected, even though they’re not treated very well,” Rubino said.

Other than cleaning foot injuries, she prepared meals and medicine for the elephants and cleaned up after them.

The trip was part of a study abroad program Rubino applied for. She learned about the chance to study in Thailand in summer 2015 when she saw an advertisement for Loop Abroad on Facebook.

Loop Abroad aims to teach students about ecology and animal conservation by allowing them to work alongside veterinarians.

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Jane Stine and her husband, Addam, started the program in Chiang Mai, Thailand, six years ago after visiting that city’s Elephant Nature Park.

“We wanted to create a study abroad program that offered authentic, pre-career travel experiences for students that were rooted in local partnership and sustainable projects,” Jane Stine wrote in an email.

Before co-founding Loop Abroad, she was a program director for national leadership conferences in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Boston. She designed Loop Abroad’s curriculum while earning her master’s of education at Harvard University.

Addam Stine graduated from the University of Maryland College Park in 2004. Before Loop Abroad, he served as the chief of staff for an entrepreneur and philanthropist in Washington, D.C.

After being accepted into Loop Abroad, Rubino took out a loan and did some fundraising to pay for the trip.

On July 28, she arrived in Thailand, where she spent the first week volunteering at the Animal Rescue Kingdom, a shelter for more than 100 dogs.

“It’s kind of like an SPCA,” she said. “Every day we would drive over there and in the morning we’d learn about the different procedures we would be doing.”

In addition to performing physical examinations and ear swabs, Rubino and nine other students in her group assisted with spay and neuter procedures.

“(Stephanie) was a great asset to the program,” Stine wrote. “Our program teams are small so the students really have a lot of work to do.”

Rubino worked with elephants during her second week.

Next month, she is applying for Blue Ridge Community College’s Veterinary Technician program.

“It’s a two-year program, so it’s much shorter and much cheaper (than veterinary school),” Rubino said. “I get to do everything I want to do and make a difference. It’s what fits for me.”

She hopes the Thailand trip will help her stand out from the other applicants.

About 120 people apply for BRCC’s on-campus veterinary technician program each year, and only 48 are accepted, said Bridget Baylor, the college’s director of public relations.

Rubio, who returned from Thailand on Aug. 8, continues to educate herself about elephant domestication through an independent study. She plans to present her research at a conference at a Bridgewater College in the spring.

“(Elephants are) treated very poorly,” she said. “During fall break, I was doing research in my kitchen … and I just started crying because there were some videos attached to these articles about elephants being chained and beaten up.”

Young elephants, Rubino added, are often taken away from their mothers and are beaten into submission by trainers.

“It’s not a fun project, but I know it’s going to be important,” she said.