A Simple Philosophy Turned A Blind Student's Dream Into Reality

Karen Bauer (Right) reviewing documents with AR (Left) in a library.
Karen Bauer (R) getting AR (L) ready for his arrival to the U.S.
I often told him about the word "perseverance" as I think it is what got us through this process, explains Karen Bauer with EducationUSA.

Karen M. Bauer is the EducationUSA Regional Educational Advising Coordinator (REAC) for Middle East and North Africa, based out of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She has a passion for international travel and cross-cultural exchange and wants to make sure everyone has the same opportunities she did.

“Growing up, my family always encouraged learning about different people from around the world and fostering cross cultural communication.”

One day Abdulrahman (AR for short), a Yemeni student living in Saudi Arabia who is blind, came into the EducationUSA office in Riyadh. He had a dream of obtaining a degree from the U.S. to support other disabled students in his country.

Karen describes her philosophy about working with students as, “Every student has a story and a dream.  Our goal [at EducationUSA] is to help them find the right place so that they can successfully study in the United States, come back to their home countries, and give to their community.” AR was no exception, even if it would take five years of persevering together.

AR knew very little English when he first started coming to the office. This was the first hurdle that both AR and Karen jumped over together. Karen reached out to English as a Second Language (ESL) programs locally and in the U.S., but few had experience working with blind or low vision students and were hesitant about the level of support they could offer.  

Karen connected AR with a Saudi blind student in the U.S. who taught him more about U.S. culture, disability support, and the academic system. Karen also contacted a family in the U.S., who has a son who is blind, and the family donated 20 books in braille to support AR and other blind students in learning English.

AR was also extremely resourceful and determined himself. He reached out to all of the EducationUSA advisers in Saudi Arabia. Karen recalls that AR got to know every adviser and the interns and always stayed positive, patient, and genuine when he communicated about his needs. This was everyone’s first time advising a blind student, so the staff learned together alongside AR.

Over time AR improved his English significantly and he got to the stage where he was ready to take the TOEFL exam so he could start applying to various universities. This was an exciting stage, but proved to be the next hurdle for Karen and AR to work through.

Karen ordered practice TOEFL tests in braille. She also worked with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to register for the TOEFL exam. This was challenging since there was no disability support office at a school in Riyadh to assist in administering it, so EducationUSA proctored the exam by having Karen read the test aloud and record it over two days. 

Karen used cassette tapes for the recordings and had to rummage through the local markets to find cassette tape players. Karen spent a lot of time on the phone with ETS going back and forth regarding the application process and reasonable accommodation requirements.

After getting the process in order, AR got a high enough TOEFL score to start applying for college! AR attended the International Exhibition of Higher Education in Riyadh along with Karen, where she introduced AR to many colleges. Sam Heikinen, Director of the Center for Global Engagement at Snow College, connected with AR and offered him a partial scholarship to come to Utah. Four months later, AR was boarding a plane!

This was AR’s first time leaving his family, and he did not want an emotional good-bye at the airport, so Karen was there by his side to see him off.

AR is doing great at Snow College and is anxious to gain admission to a four-year university to pursue a degree in disability studies. This all happened as Karen and AR stayed focused on the dream and persevered together.

Highlights and Tips

ESL programs: Apply anywhere!

Challenge: Limited access to ESL programs.

Action: Karen contacted local ESL schools, connected with other blind students in the U.S., and provided tools to keep AR practicing ESL in-country.

Info: All ESL programs in the U.S. are required to make their programs accessible to students with disabilities. If the student finds a desirable program that has little to no experience working with students with disabilities, then it is important to apply early and disclose after admission in order to plan for the student’s needs.

Tip: Access our Resource Library for disability-specific resources for students with disabilities and professionals. 

Testing: Start early!

Challenge: Applying for accommodations with testing centers.

Action: Karen ordered practice TOEFL exams in braille to have available for blind students.

Info: All accommodations must be reviewed and approved before students can schedule their exams.

Tip:  Request a checklist from the ETS Disability Support office and other testing centers for the steps to prepare when you are registering a student with a disability that will need accommodations.

Work directly with ETS, the College Board, and other testing offices to find methods to streamline the process for future students.

Funding: Advocate for students with disabilities!

Challenge: Lack of funding options for international students with disabilities.

Action: Outreach! Karen advocated for AR to many schools and intentionally looked for partnerships. 

Info: It is difficult to advocate for every student, but making connections for students with disabilities is important since these students are often missed at recruitment fairs and other opportunities

Tip: Speak to ESL programs and colleges that actively recruit international students and see if any partnerships and funding options can be created for students with disabilities.