When Brit­tany Hutchinson first locked eyes with a cheetah looking for a meal, the North­eastern Uni­ver­sity his­tory stu­dent on co-​​op at a Namibia con­ser­va­tion reserve, knew one thing: she could not show fear.

Despite the fact that she was never sep­a­rated from these preda­tors by more than a seven-​​foot wire barrier—which, she says, feels like no pro­tec­tion at all—she faced down big cats like the cheetah every time and never felt afraid. “I don’t know where I got the con­fi­dence,” she says now.

Last August to October, working through the inter­na­tional exchange edu­ca­tion pro­gram Geo­vi­sions, Hutchinson trav­eled from Boston to Namibia to pursue a vol­un­teer posi­tion at the Envi­ron­mental and Cheetah Con­ser­va­tion in Namibia. Then from October to Jan­uary, she worked at a smaller lion and baboon reserve in South Africa.

At first glance, it’s not clear why a person plan­ning to become a his­tory teacher would want to work so closely with big cats and other wild ani­mals. For Hutchinson, though, it was all about leaving her com­fort zone, throwing her­self into some­thing totally new, and trav­eling the world. “There’s so much I want to do in life. I want to suck every­thing I can out of the oppor­tu­ni­ties I encounter as a stu­dent,” she explains.

Hutchinson has no regrets, and says the expe­ri­ence changed her life immeasurably.

A lot of my friends were get­ting big engi­neering and finance co-​​ops, and I thought it was great. But when I started to look into co-​​op and the idea of trav­eling and vol­un­teering inter­na­tion­ally, it felt like the sky was the limit,” she adds. “I deter­mined that I had an oppor­tu­nity in front of me to do some­thing I will never get a chance in my life to do again.”

She embarked on her back-​​to-​​back inter­na­tional vol­un­teer expe­ri­ences last fall, arriving in Namibia dis­ori­ented after an exhausting two days of travel. She was also a little shell-​​shocked.

You’re in the middle of nowhere. You don’t know any­body. There are no reg­ular resources, like water and lights,” she says. “I was very unhappy for a couple of weeks, just trying to adjust and trying to feel good about my deci­sion to go there.”

Soon, though, she learned to adapt to the unfa­miliar con­di­tions, including water and elec­tricity short­ages and evenings spent lis­tening to the roar of the nearby felines.

Hutchinson spent her days res­cuing chee­tahs and leop­ards from nearby fields, where farmers trap them in an effort to pro­tect their herds. Often, she says, her morning would start with a simple phone mes­sage: “I’ve got a cheetah and a leopard for you.”

On the reserve, she spent most of her day cleaning up after the ani­mals, or helping to feed them. It was during the feed­ings where she learned to stand her ground against the aggres­sive cats.

Forget what you’ve seen on TV. These ani­mals are enor­mous. They never take their eyes off you. The males are incred­ibly ter­ri­to­rial and they’re not a fan of people,” she recounts. “When you drag the meat up to their fenced-​​in area to feed them, they’ll rush the fence.”

Yet, Hutchinson main­tains that the expe­ri­ence was inspi­ra­tional. “The whole focus of sharing the planet and catering to ani­mals was really impor­tant to me,” she says. “I learned to be con­fi­dent and brave, and devel­oped a greater respect and appre­ci­a­tion for our planet.”