154 Letter from Deborah Kerstetter

Personal profile

I spent my formative years in Micronesia (at that time a United Nations trusteeship under the USA) on the islands of Pohnpei and Saipan. During that time—the 1960s—often considered the “golden age of flying,” we flew to and from North America and Micronesia on Pan Am, which was then the USA’s largest international air carrier. While my parents likely remembered their flying experience differently, my recollection is of beautiful and attentive air hostesses (now known as “flight attendants”), pilots escorting my brothers and me to the cockpit for a birds-eye view of the world, space to move around, and sumptuous meals. I thought the experience so wonderful I dreamt of becoming a flight attendant, thinking that being one would lead to my being glamorous, worldly, and independent. That dream was quickly squelched in the early 1970s when mass travel became more commonplace and being a flight attendant no longer held the same allure. Instead, I chose to study recreation and tourism management, work in the industry and, as often as possible, be a tourist.

Taking flight

In 1970 my family left Micronesia and returned to the mainland United States. We moved to Palo Alto, California where my father pursued his PhD at Stanford University. The two years we spent there were difficult. I entered junior high school as an “un-cool” teenager. I was completely unaware of drugs and the other trappings of the core culture. I responded by investing myself in something I knew—sports. I ran track for a local amateur athletic union team and swam for a local aquatics club; both provided shelter, allowing me to safely navigate my early teen years.

In the summer of 1972, two months before I entered high school, my family moved north to a predominantly agricultural community east of Sacramento, California. Here I began to take flight. I developed my interest in recreation by working for the local parks and recreation department, singing in the choir, participating in theatre, and serving on various student/youth committees and boards. Yet, by my senior year in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. The norm was to attend college but if I did I had no idea what I would study.

I chose to adhere to the norm and attend California State University at Chico. I changed my major multiple times until I found Recreation Administration. I was shocked that I could obtain a degree in something I enjoyed. While it was not a perfect match for my interests (remember, I originally wanted to be a flight attendant), and there were no courses focused on what is today referred to as commercial/for-profit recreation or travel and tourism, I took courses from other disciplines to enhance my degree. I also decided to complete an extended internship as an event manager with the American School System in Lima, Peru. The internship solidified my interest in travel and tourism and led to my pursuit of an advanced degree at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), USA.

To complete the capstone requirement of my master’s degree—a thesis— I studied the effect of pre-retirement leisure counseling on leisure activity participation (including travel) of retired individuals. The outcomes of this first extensive research project were awareness of a new discipline and literature (i.e., gerontology), my first presentation at a national conference, a burgeoning interest in older adults’ decision-making behavior and, after graduation, further experiences in event management, including one for Centre County Area Agency on Aging and another working with employees in Agencies on Aging as well as youth adjudication centers around the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Three years after completing my masters degree I was invited to be an instructor in what was then called “Recreation and Parks” at Penn State. I took the position hoping that I would be accepted into the doctoral program in Recreation and Parks and could simultaneously work towards completing my Ph.D. It worked out. I not only gained teaching experience, I also completed additional coursework in recreation/tourism and gerontology, minored in marketing, and completed a dissertation that built on my experiences and interests. The title of my dissertation, “An Exploratory Study of the Pleasure Travel Behavior of Older Adults,” led to what I consider to be my first solid contribution to tourism research.

Climbing beyond the clouds

From 1990, when I was hired by Penn State as an Assistant Professor, to 1994 I worked with Dr. Richard Gitelson to assess how socio-demographic characteristics, benefits sought, travel experience, and/or travel group composition affected individuals travel behavior. When Dr. Gitelson decided to leave Penn State, I continued to study factors (e.g., level of involvement, attitude, perceived constraints, image, level of specialization) affecting behavior in recreation and travel contexts but did so primarily with my graduate students (e.g., G. Kovich, P. Mowrer, Dr. K. Bricker, Dr. L. Pennington-Gray, Dr. P. Chen, Dr. J. Son, Dr. J. Gao, Dr. M. Shahvali). In the 2000s my students, Dr. Mi-Hea Cho and Dr. Hui Xie, and I also began to account for the role information played in consumers’ decision-making behavior. While consumers approach to decision making, including information use, as well as travel behavior have evolved since 1990, the results of our research contributed to furthering our understanding of tourists’ decision-making and travel behavior.

Beginning in the mid- to late-2000s my student, Dr. Kelly Bricker, and I made a second contribution to the tourism literature. We, in concert with many other scholars around the world, began to address the role sense of place plays in tourism development and management. Our work, which was primarily conducted in Fiji, led to a more holistic understanding of “place,” particularly amongst residents being exposed to tourism development.

My third contribution to the literature began with colleagues at Breda University in the Netherlands. Working with Dr. Ondrej Mitas and Dr. Jeroen Nawijn as well as one of my students, Dr. Kevin Lin, we looked at the role emotions play in the vacation experience. Specifically, we addressed how emotions change over the course of a vacation and to what extent such change affects the provision of and response to vacation experiences. Following up on this initial effort, I worked with one of my other students, Dr. Jie Gao, to determine to what extent the use of emotion regulation strategies can affect tourists’ perception of self and/or their vacation.

My final contribution to the literature is the work I’m currently doing with Dr. Mojtaba Shahvali, my last Ph.D student. Rather than looking at factors contributing to travel behavior we are addressing how travel contributes to outcomes such as relationship functioning and relationship satisfaction. Building on models introduced in the family leisure and human development literatures, we are attempting to provide empirical evidence of the link between vacationing and emotional health.

Experiencing a bit of turbulence

My lines of research, which I outlined in the previous section, have at times been a challenge to maintain.  At Penn State, where I spent my entire academic career, tenure-track/tenured faculty in my department—Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management—were expected to teach two courses per semester and publish, on average, three refereed manuscripts each year. Beginning in the 1990s they were also expected to solicit funding to support their line of research. Meeting these expectations was hard for a number of reasons. First, in the 35 years I worked for the university, I had one colleague in the department who shared similar interests. He left after four years to live in a warmer climate. To ensure that my line of research was viable, I conducted my own studies or collaborated with faculty on related research. Over time, I sought and conducted projects with my graduate students who, after leaving Penn State, began their own tourism research journeys.

A second challenge I faced was obtaining funding to support my line of research and my graduate students. In the 1980s the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania eliminated its tourism office and began providing matching grants for tourism promotion—not research—to regional tourism organizations. Thus, I sought funding from other sources including foundations; non-profit organizations; resource management agencies such as Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; and organizations around the country/world that supported tourism research. This was not always easy—particularly early on—as representatives from these groups did not understand: (a) what information could be gleaned from tourists that would benefit their strategic mission/goals;(b) why a non-profit or government agency should fund research on tourism, which, particularly in Pennsylvania, was perceived to be a for-profit endeavor; (c) how a faculty member could conduct research as good or better than a consultant; and (d) why they should pay for research being conducted by a faculty member and her graduate students who worked for a state-affiliated[1] university, which in their minds was already receiving funding from government agencies, taxpayers, and more. While the funding sources I listed above may not seem unusual today, in the 1990s much of the support for tourism research in the United States came from government agencies and destination marketing organizations.

In addition to not having tourism colleagues or access to existing sources of funding, I chose not to force my program of research on my graduate students. As a result, I had to maintain my own line of research and simultaneously invest a great deal of time and effort in each student’s thesis/dissertation. I do not regret this decision as my most rewarding experiences at Penn State were associated with mentoring students.

My fourth challenge was accepting leadership roles. I am very focused, organized, and detail-oriented—traits that administrators like in leaders. Hence, early on in my academic career, and prior to receiving tenure, I was asked to direct the undergraduate program. I subsequently oversaw the undergraduate honors program, which required that I recruit the best undergraduate students in the department to enroll in the program, advise them, and chair/co-chair their theses. My final administrative responsibility was directing the graduate program. All of these roles required an enormous amount of time; time that could have been spent soliciting funding, conducting research, and writing.

Soaring onward

The journeys I took throughout my career allowed me to live a privileged life. I sat in bures[2] with village chiefs in Fiji, biked in the Netherlands, hiked up mountainsides in Ecuador, climbed temple steps in South Korea, swam above the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, roamed Hong Kong’s street markets, and visited many natural resource and event sites throughout the United States—most often for the sake of research. These journeys, and more, resulted in my being a more empathic individual and researcher. I learned to listen rather than preach. I learned to adapt. I learned to respect and respond to the mores of each culture. I learned that without those with whom I was working—tourists, residents, colleagues, students, sponsors—I could contribute no new knowledge. I also learned that I, as a researcher, am not above or better, or necessarily more informed, than those from whom I am collecting data.

My many journeys also taught me that the research process can be unfair, particularly when women do not stand up for themselves. For example, in my first few years at Penn State, I was so eager to get published I allowed others to use my data as well as my writing and editing skills to generate manuscripts. These “others” listed me as second author. Later, especially when working with a large research team comprised primarily of men, I permitted representatives from funding agencies to direct their questions to the men, even if I led/co-led the project. I also failed to promote myself internally within the university and externally to existing and potential funding agencies, impacting my ability to attain support for my research. I recognize that many of my bad experiences were of my own making; thus, I do not blame others. Instead, I have done by best to ensure that other women recognize and promote their worth as individuals first and then, in an academic context, as researchers.

Landing safely

I am now professor emerita of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management at Penn State. While I did not become a glamorous, worldly flight attendant—as I had hoped when I was young—I did “land” a career that allowed me to be independent and exposed me to a diverse and stimulating world. Despite the challenges I faced, and the fact that I was not very good at the “work-life” balancing act, in the end my legacy as a tourism researcher lies in the things I left behind. I published more than 120 manuscripts and wrote more research reports than I care to remember. In addition, I was involved in approximately 175 presentations at professional meetings. I’m not sure which of the manuscripts or presentations have been most impactful because researchers’ interests vary, as do trends in the field, but I am sure that the most meaningful to me are the manuscripts and presentations I completed with my students. My students are my legacy and through them I have contributed to the heritage of tourism research.


Deborah Kerstetter
The Pennsylvania State University, United States

  1. Penn State is a state-related university, meaning that the university receives funding (on average less than 10% of its budget) from, but is not operated by, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
  2. A bure is a wood-and-straw hut. The materials used to build the bure are often tied together with rope while the floors are packed down dirt or clay covered up with coconut leaf mats.


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Women’s voices in tourism research Copyright © 2021 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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