PHOTO: Andrew Selinka searched the whole world over and finally settled into a life based on travel, learning and young people.
Many winding paths converge in the tour industry. The industry is a haven for a wide variety of seekers who were unsatisfied trying to fit into more conventional walks of life.
Take Andrew Selinka, the owner of Academic Expeditions. A look at his resume gives the impression that he wanted to try everything else before he took up tour operating.
Selinka has been a Wall Street analyst, a Macy’s manager, a psychotherapist, a vagabond riding the rails of North America and an international backpacker.
Originally from the Bronx, Selinka’s first job offer after graduating college was as an intelligence agent with the National Security Agency.
“I went up to Maryland, the headquarters of the NSA, and it was all white men with guns and badges and I thought, ‘This is not how I want to spend my career.’”
So he turned it down, then checked out an offer with Ernst and Julio Gallo winemakers in California. “I couldn’t do that,” he said, “because I figured every time I heard of someone driving drunk and getting hurt it would be my fault.”
His third offer was with Macy’s in its executive training program. Macy’s put him in charge of the Men’s Department at its Atlanta store. The career path from there would progress to assistant buyer, then buyer and then to upper management.
Ed Finkelstein, the president of Macy’s US at the time, came to visit the new store on Easter Sunday.
“The bunny suit came and the guy who was supposed to be the bunny was too tall, so I got into it. They said I was the best bunny they’d ever had. Finkelstein came up to me and said, ‘Who are you?’
“I took my bunny head off and introduced myself and he said, ‘I’ll remember you.’ I got my promotion two weeks later.”
But success on the wrong career path is no success at all.
Time to See the World
“When I got promoted to buyer I figured it was time to quit,” said Selinka. “It was time for me to go see the world.
“I had a condominium in Atlanta and I sold everything or gave it away. I had some friends doing Ph.D. work in the psychology department and most of them were Black. They had a van and I was packing up my stuff and giving it to them. Then they didn’t come back in the house for 10 minutes. So I walked outside and all five of them were on the ground with handcuffs on and feet on their heads. The police figured a bunch of Black people with a van in Atlanta had to be robbing. These guys were all Ph.D. professors in psychology.”
He gave almost everything away and went on the road, traveling around the U.S. for half a year. “I’d never seen the United States and I wanted to see it,” he said.
He settled for a year in Arizona at Arcosanti, the utopian desert community of Italian architect Paolo Soleri. At Arcosanti he worked in a foundry making bells.
Then he took off again, this time traveling abroad. “I went all through Europe,” he said. “From Europe I was going to Asia. I figured the Middle East would be a good place to stop in between. I made it to Israel and ended up staying for 10 years."
He lived all over Israel and beyond, in kibbutzes in Gaza, in Golan Heights, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and in Lebanon. He worked counseling young people at a children’s aid center.
He studied in an orthodox yeshiva for six months.
“They were really good to me,” he said. “Out of my entire group, 30 or 40 guys who went in then, I was the only one who didn’t become orthodox.”
For Andrew it was time to move on again. This time he returned to the states. He took some counseling courses at the University of Vermont and ended up staying for a year.
Then he went traveling again, this time seeing the country by riding the rails from Minnesota through Canada, California and Mexico. He even attended the hobo convention.
He worked in Child Protective Services for three years in California as an investigator, then ran the state program for assessment. He studied marine biology in Santa Cruz.
“I wasn’t a great marine biologist,” he said. “I get seasick on boats.”
He returned to Vermont and finished two Master’s degrees in counseling. He pursued a counseling practice for two years, but it wasn’t fulfilling. Psychotherapists fell into ruts, clichés, kept their clients coming back for years when they could help them and send them on their way.
“I discovered I hated psychotherapy,” he said.
In the early ‘90s he ended up back in New York with a job with Citibank as a research analyst. Things went well but after five years he got restless. He wanted to have his own business, and he sensed instability in the financial industry.
“Mergers and acquisitions were good in the early ‘90s,” he said, “But I saw that there were other parts of the banking industry that weren’t solid. You could tell that there was some nervousness and chatter and I figured there was going to be a recession. I didn’t know it would be as big as it was, but I knew there was going to be something, and I wanted to have my own business.”
But what kind of business would fit? What would be relatively recession proof? With his history of counseling, his recurring theme of working with children and his love of travel, he zeroed in on educational travel.
“I remember sitting there one day in my office at the World Trade Center, looking out the window over the Hudson River at Jersey and beyond,” he said. “It was a beautiful fall day and I remember looking at myself scratching the window of this hermetically sealed building like a cat and thinking, ‘I need to get out of here.’ I wanted to be anywhere but there at that time. All that stuff is out there. I’m going to do it.”
That’s when he started to plan for his own tour company. It took time to lay the foundations. Citibank allowed him to follow a flex-time schedule. During fall and winter he would work on Wall Street and in spring and summer he worked on his new business. At first he went to work for other tour operators, learning how they worked. He worked as a guide for Globus and Cosmos, Worldstrides and Educational Field Studies.
Gradually he started forming his own groups. Even though his break-even point was 30 passengers, he would often travel with only 10, losing money but working to gain traction as an operator.
Selinka was still working in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He was 20 minutes late coming into the office that day and when he came up from the subway the North Tower had already been hit, but the South Tower, where his office was, had not been hit, and the Port Authority was telling people to go back to their desks because everything was under control. Of course he did not return to his desk.
Selinka’s Wall Street career didn’t last much longer after that. After six years working flex-time with Citibank he was ready to cut it loose and go full time as a tour operator.
The Making of a Tour Operator
Selinka’s broad range of life experience gives him an enormous latitude of experience to draw from. And perhaps that is the perfect training for one who wants to run his own business as a tour operator. Tour operating, and running your own business, brings just about everything else on earth with it. Just about everything that can happen will happen to a tour operator at some point. So perhaps the widest range of experience possible is the proper training.
Academic Expeditions. The name itself seems to harbor a contradiction. Upon meeting him, Selinka seems the farthest thing from the stereotype of an academic. He’s a man of action. He’s a little rough around the edges. He’s obviously been out and about a good bit. He has not spent his life in a classroom.
He dresses informally, in comfortable, practical clothes, black jeans and hiking boots. He’s more “expedition” than “academic.” He doesn’t carry business cards.
When he talks about his work, one senses a mission, and it is not to be enormously profitable. He will say that it is about the love of learning, but there is something additional that he does not name. But there are clues. Many of his programs are driven by an urge to help promote understanding between people who may hold differing religious views.
He has resolved his moral and spiritual leanings with a secular orientation and he has finally found his niche in that strange little world of tour operating.