Creating a Culture of Inclusion: One EducationUSA Adviser’s Quest

About two dozen Bangladeshi men and women stand in a room before a projector screen
Sausan Rahmatullah (center, facing camera) with seminar attendees
A proactive educational adviser in Bangladesh seeks out an untapped pool of high-potential students.

Sausan Rahmatullah has always enjoyed volunteering. So when she heard that an organization in her home of Dhaka, Bangladesh was hosting a scholarship competition for high-achieving Bangladeshi students with physical disabilities, she immediately volunteered as a judge.

Having been introduced to so many talented students with disabilities through the volunteer experience, Sausan felt compelled to do more. Fortunately, the answer was right up her alley.

In Dhaka, Sausan is an Adviser for EducationUSA, a U.S. Department of State-sponsored network whose mission is to promote higher education in the United States among prospective international students around the world. Connecting Bangladeshi students with the resources they would need to reach their goal of studying in the United States happens to be Sausan’s specialty.

But following her volunteer gig with students with disabilities, she realized that this was an untapped pool of students who were not taking advantage of her services despite having so much potential. Part of this gap, Sausan suspected, was due to the lack of accessible information about international exchange made available to students with disabilities as well as social expectations about what people with disabilities can and cannot do.

“Many students themselves felt that they did not have what it takes to study abroad, which is absolutely incorrect. I wanted to empower them, to remind them that EducationUSA is here to support them.”

Together with the director of the EMK Center, out of which Dhaka’s EducationUSA advising center operates, Sausan decided to host a seminar with information specific to people with disabilities. To do this, she had to anticipate the kinds of questions and concerns that prospective students and their families might have about studying in the United States with a disability so she could be ready with advice.

She researched the different types of facilities, resources, and services commonly available at American institutions so that students with disabilities can access higher education – a right upheld by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She looked into disability-provided accommodations available for those taking standardized tests such as the TOEFL or the GRE. She researched whether any existing disability-specific scholarships may be applied towards study abroad.

Finally, Sausan reached out to the organization for which she had served as a volunteer judge and asked for help with inviting ambitious young people with disabilities from their network to the seminar. The turnout was astounding.

Emboldened by the success of the seminar and the momentum of taking its first step towards disability inclusion, EducationUSA Bangladesh didn’t stop there. Among the next series of steps it took, the center:

  • Developed relationships with local disability organizations, which helped them understand how they could improve their services
  • Invited staff from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) to co-present a virtual session
  • Recruited an international exchange alumna with a disability to discuss her experiences in the United States as a resource and role model to others
  • Stocked their library with literature encouraging people with disabilities to go abroad, including books and magazines from the NCDE
  • Used social media to share disability-inclusive messages (e.g. “we welcome students with disabilities”) and scholarships
  • Garnered support from high-profile leaders, including the Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh

These and other efforts have yielded fruitful outcomes. Sausan reports a greater number of disabled students and their parents seeking her advising services. She expects that the publicity they have received around their work will continue to attract new clients.

Looking ahead, Sausan and her colleagues would like to engage more role models with disabilities, make materials available in audio and braille formats for blind students, and conduct disability trainings for visa officers and others who are influential to the process of international students studying in the United States.

Sausan does not consider these proactive plans to be “above and beyond.” Rather, she says she is simply striving to fulfill EducationUSA’s original mission.

“Education helps people evolve in a direction that they perhaps never imagined they could. ALL students have a right to access that.”

Did you know? EducationUSA’s network includes over 400 international student advising centers in more than 175 countries worldwide. Visit educationusa.state.gov to learn more.