Room to Innovate in an International Exchange Career

Four women sit around a table with leftover plates and cups; Three of the women wear traditional garments from their home countries
Sarah Amin (second from left) dines with international visitors as part of a hospitality program.
Out of the box thinkers and thought leaders see possibility where others don't. To be on the cutting edge of international exchange, Sarah Amin challenges her colleagues, her international visitors, and herself to achieve full access in their programs.

In Washington, D.C., there is no shortage of international exchange organizations working to promote intercultural understanding and citizen diplomacy, but Sarah Amin was drawn to Cultural Vistas in particular, remarking on their enthusiastic staff who seemed open and flexible to creativity and fresh ideas. 

It was an impression that proved to be true throughout her time at Cultural Vistas, where Sarah is an Assistant Program Officer with the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Although it wasn't the position she initially applied for, the hiring managers guided her to the right fit in the IVLP program after recognizing her previous experience and zeal for working with visiting activists and scholars on the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship program.

"I really enjoyed the experience of interacting one-on-one with experts in a variety of fields from around the world, exchanging innovative ideas and perspectives, and learning about our common priorities and interests."

In her role, Sarah is charged with coordinating the activities and travels of the incoming delegations of IVLP professionals, from arranging lodging and transportation to coordinating language interpreters, designing program structure and materials, and liaising with hosting organizations across the country. In short, she works to juggle all of the details great and small that make each IVLP a success.

Since part of what makes IVLP a success is the diversity of its participants, Cultural Vistas staff have worked diligently to ensure access for its participants with disabilities. Sarah says that as a person with a mobility disability, her colleagues have mentioned that working with her has made them much more conscientious of accessibility.

"That’s a very important start, having your co-workers actually see how you work, your needs, and how your disability impacts your work on a daily basis. I think that this close proximity has made my colleagues better program designers and more disability-conscientious people overall."

Yet, Sarah's co-workers aren't the only ones getting a crash-course in disability accommodations and accessibility. When Sarah prepared to welcome a delegation from Japan - all advocates for disability-inclusive education - she learned that one of the delegates had a disability with which she was not at all familiar. Although it would require some research, Sarah knew that it would be an opportunity to show the Japanese delegation by example how inclusion can be achieved.

By the end, Sarah learned about a completely different mode of accessible travel, equipment and technology she had not used before, and TSA regulations that she never knew existed.

"Although I myself live with and understand a certain set of disabilities, this project demonstrated perfectly how even those of us with disabilities must continuously learn and refresh our understanding of accommodations for disabilities across the spectrum."

It's where that organizational culture of flexibility and creativity that attracted Sarah to the job and her colleagues in the first place really pays off. The ability to innovate and try new approaches to old challenges is indispensible in a job that brings you face-to-face with international visitors who themselves are leaders and innovators.

For Sarah, getting to know people, their personal motivations, and their visions for society is an aspect of her work that she enjoys most, and she intends on making that part of her work in the future as well as the present.

"I would be thrilled to be able to engage in a meaningful and genuine way to help people achieve their visions. Currently, international exchange programs are a wonderful way to fulfill this!"

Sarah's Tips for Job-Seekers

Be a trailblazer. Apply for everything that interests you, and don't assume that organizations that appear to be "disability friendly" will be the only ones to hire you. "There have been several cases where I was the first or only person with a disability to be hired in a certain position or department."

Set yourself apart. Most hiring managers will look for candidates who are detail-oriented, committed, and hard-working. So how can you stand out from the crowd? "Niche interests, language skills, and unique experiences could add an interesting angle from the organization's point of view."

Put yourself out there! "Find an interest that sets you on fire and learn as much as you can about it." Volunteer, learn a language, keep a professional blog, give talks at conferences, join clubs, participate in your local government and community, study abroad - or whatever you can do to learn and contribute.

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in October, this story is part of a series spotlighting young professionals with disabilities gaining work experience in the field of international education. Get your foot in the door in this exciting field!

Author: 

Ashley Holben