KOKOMO, Ind. Standing in front of a three-ton Asian elephant, Shelby Beltz felt no fear.
She reached out her hand, gently offering a large piece of sugar cane, which the elephant delicately grasped in her trunk, then lifted to her mouth.
As she watched in awe, Beltz’s smile grew wider, lighting up her eyes with joy.
“It was a dream come true,” said Beltz, a senior business major at Indiana University Kokomo. “Elephants are my favorite animal. I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole time.”
Beltz planned and took her dream trip to Thailand in December, after gaining confidence in her ability to travel overseas from a School of Business trip to Poland earlier in 2018. She plans to take a trip to England with the school after she graduates in May, and is considering job options with not-for-profit organizations abroad.
“Going to Poland made me want to travel even more,” she said. “I had never been out of the country before. It was nerve-wracking at first, but the experience showed me how easy and affordable it could be if I planned right. It gave me the realization I can go anywhere.
“I want to do something with my life that helps people, and it would be amazing to combine that with travel,” she said. “There are so many cultures out there to learn about, and so many opportunities. There’s nothing to stand in my way of traveling more.”
Growing up in Alexandria, for years Beltz had read about Thailand, and admired pictures of its beautiful mountains, forests, and its white sand beaches.
Beltz traveled to Chiang Mai, in the mountainous region of northern Thailand. She spent about 20 days in the country, visiting markets and other tourist attractions, and also volunteering at an orphanage. She helped the children work on letters and numbers, and practicing their English — an important skill that makes them more likely to get jobs when they are old enough to work.
“It’s heartwarming to see the missionary over there trying to make a difference in the way she can,” Beltz said. “It’s only seven children, but they are making the connection to get them adopted, to become part of their own family. They are making a difference for those children.”
The highlight of the trip was a day at the Kanta Elephant Sanctuary.
Described as a retirement home for Asian elephants that previously were used in the tourism and logging industries, the sanctuary offers visitors a chance to walk with, feed, observe, and bathe elephants, with the fee supporting their work in purchasing the elephants and providing for them in a natural environment.
The elephants are used to being around people, allowing for an interactive experience that Beltz will never forget.
“You could pet their noses and faces, and I was like, ‘I am actually touching an elephant right now,’” she said. “I really considered finding a way to bring one home. I don’t think I would have made it through security, and I probably would have exceeded the luggage weight limit.”
She especially enjoyed going into the river with an elephant, to give it a bath.
“You just stay by its back, because the elephant is either lying on its side or sitting in the water,” she said. “I think we both enjoyed the experience.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana