Ripple Effects 3.7: An International Perspective for a Nation-Wide Mission

Jessica smiling leaning on bridge overlooking river and gondolas.
Jessica discovered that study abroad can resonate even working stateside. Find out how.

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Justin Harford (JH): Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities abroad, brought to you by the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, a project sponsored by the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational And Cultural Affairs and administered by Mobility International USA

We know that international exchange  contributes to personal  and professional development. It can enhance one's confidence and skill sets, broaden one's perspective and shape one's  educational path. It can also influence job choices and employment opportunities. Let’s find out how. For this season of Ripple Effects, we will hear stories from international exchange alumni with disabilities and how their programs relate to their careers. This is part of a new initiative from the clearinghouse called, #LifeAfterExchange.

I’m Justin Harford, a Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA and your host for Ripple Effects.

JH: From an early age, Jessica Queener learned about the importance of self advocacy for achieving her goals. Even before we might've used that language, Jessica's parents understood the importance of taking an active role in one's education especially for their daughter who is hard of hearing.

Now, Jessica Queener has made her career in the world of youth transitions, establishing better collaboration and communication between the different organizations involved in work preparation systems in order to enable the next generation of youth with disabilities to achieve their own goals. A high point of Jessica's experience transitioning from college to career was the semester in 1999 that she spent as a college student in Wales. We had the good fortune to catch up with Jessica on her busy schedule to discuss the ways that her international exchange changed her life and continues to resonate in the work that she does almost 20 years later.

We first discussed that early history, being raised as a child to parents who wanted the best for their daughter, and who taught her to be a self advocate.

Jessica Queener (JQ): I did have that… I was very very involved with my teachers and talking about my disability with them. I guess I should disclose that I have a hearing loss and I have a cochlear implant now, but when I was young I was diagnosed with a severe to profound hearing loss and were hearing aids. And when I was in the classroom I also had a Telex which is kind of like a modern day Walkman. But now we have iPods and iPhones, and people where wires going up to their ears. So the teacher would wear a microphone in the classroom. And so I also had speech therapy so I would be pulled out for special education related services that I needed. So is very involved in that sense. So from an early age my parents sat me down and talked to me about my disability, and the importance of advocating for my needs. And back in those days we didn't call it self advocacy, and we didn't call those types of skills that my parents were teaching me self-determination, but that is a lot of what my parents were doing with me at a very young age as early as kindergarten. So I would always going on the first day of school and talk to my teachers about my disability.

JH: One could also say that Jessica's self advocacy extended to her community as well, as she was very politically active from a young age. Some of her earliest memories are with her father at political events, and when she started school, she was very involved with both her student community as well as her town at large.

JQ: My mom, at the time, was very involved in starting her own career, and she was an RN and so she was working at a hospital and had extremely long hours. So while she was working my dad took me to all of these political events, and fundraisers, and rallies and receptions. So at a very young age I met Al Gore when he was running for the U.S. Senate in 1984., So the there is a picture of my dad and Al Gore… A very young Al Gore… In the very young myself together in a photo. So I began a very young age meeting all kinds of people, shaking hands, handing out flyers, bumper stickers and I just absolutely love that. Now my very first campaign was when I was 14 years old, and it was a Senate campaign that I worked on. I absolutely loved it. Because of the interest in my early years. So I did whatever the office manager told me to do. If she needed me to go on game day… Because in Tennessee the SEC football is huge… I would hand out bumper stickers, pamphlets, talk to people, ask them for their vote for my particular candidate that I was campaigning for. But that whole experience was just amazing in the sense that I got to meet a lot of other young people who were a little bit older, who were in college, but were very politically active. And I also got to meet the candidates as well. And just had a whole array of early work experiences, but it was in my area of interest, so it was very… It was very exciting. There was always something going on… There was never a dull day on the campaign. So from that experience I volunteered for more political campaigns but my local campaign state and national… And national campaigns. And then I also got involved in my national party that I was working particularly for different candidates for. So I just became more and more involved, and that led me to become more and more involved in my high school. So really focusing on being involved in student government and any other type of leadership opportunity that I could get my hands on. And so from there that led me to applying for internships opportunities. I called my local congressman's office in my junior high school career. And I asked for an internship opportunity, because I just had all of this drive and passion, and I wanted to keep doing it, and I wanted to do it while I was in high school. I didn't want to wait.

JH: When Jessica went to college she continued to look for opportunities to branch out and try new things, and one of those projects was her international exchange, or the semester abroad that she spent in Wales in 1999. We asked her about that and this is what she shared with us:

JQ: Sure. So when I was in college… It was my junior year, and it was the fall of 1999, applied for the semester Wales program at the University of Tennessee. It was always a dream of mine to go overseas, and so I selected Wales because my mother's side of the family is from there, and so I wanted to learn more about their culture and the history. As a political science major… Big surprise there given on my history about political campaigns, I was very interested in international relations… Learning more about international relations in the context of political science. So the program offered coursework in this area so I was very interested. On another level I selected Wales because any people spoke English and as a person with a severe to profound hearing loss, and who were hearing aids and he relied heavily on lipreading, I wanted to be sure that I could be successful in my new environment however I didn't think that language would be a barrier, because everyone spoke English. But due to the accents, and how people form their words, lipreading did not come as easily to me in Wales as it did in the United States. So at the University of Wales at Swansea where I was, they did not have a disability services office on campus like they did here in the states. So I had to meet with my program coordinator who was overseeing the semester in Wales program at Swansea, and explained to her my disability, and how that was impacting me in the classroom, and what I needed as an accommodation so I could be successful in the study abroad environment in the classroom. And so thankfully, my coordinator was very accommodating, and was willing to work with me. And so she met with my professors one on one, and talk to them, and just explains the situation.

Everybody was very understanding, and they worked with me to get the accommodations that I needed, such as a notetaker. They had these huge lecture halls, and there was no back-and-forth interaction with the students, so you just had to go in and listen for 2 to 3 hours on a lecture. So I would be so focused on trying to understand the accent, and understand what words they were saying that I didn't have time to write everything down. So there were some differences between studying in the United States and studying abroad, but the program itself… Other than that… It was amazing.

I went with 25 other students from the University and one professor, so we had classes three days a week during the week, and we had really long weekends to travel to other parts of Europe, so I got to go to France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Italy. And to this day I still remain in touch with my classmates. I highly recommend traveling overseas. I loved it.

JH: In addition to her hearing loss, Jessica also had another disability experience that she had to confront while abroad in Swansea Wales. She found that the support of her peers and the staff on her program was a benefit that enabled her to succeed.

JQ:  When I was young I was diagnosed as having a panic disorder with agoraphobia. And so what that means is if I had a panic attack somewhere then I would not want to go to the place where I had my panic attack. So eventually it just gets to the point where you just don't want to leave your house, because you are afraid that you'll have a panic attack somewhere, and it will be embarrassing and it will happen in front of all these people, and is not going to be anyone who will be able to help you. So I was very nervous about leaving my campus and my support system and having a major panic attack overseas and not having someone over there to talk to. However, one of the things that provided me great comfort was knowing that I was traveling over there with 24 other students who were from my campus and my university, and we all met before we went over there, and we also had a professor that was traveling with us. It was nice to know that I had a group of people that I could talk to if I needed it and if I needed to talk to my professor. And I became friends with many of the students and shared my anxiety with them, and the people that I became close with, and so my anxiety about that lessened the longer I was over there. I did have a couple of panic attacks while I was there but I was fine, because I had created my own support network.

JH: The experience of being abroad and meeting people from a variety of different backgrounds has stood out to Jessica as a high point in her international exchange experience, and one that she continues to carry with her today. Take a listen at what she said about the new ways that she discovered for interacting with people from different backgrounds during her times in Wales:

JQ: I did. You met so many people when you are traveling, and even when it's not in a structured environment, you are meeting people constantly when you are traveling, and restaurants, and places because they hear the American accent, and people just want to talk to you, because they want to know where you're from, and what you are doing and what you brought you here. So you just became immersed in so many different cultures and interests, because people were very interested in learning about you and you want to learn about them. I also met so many Americans were traveling as well. So when I came back to the states it just gave me a greater appreciation. I know that's kind of a cliché… Everybody says that. But it's really true. It does give you a greater appreciation of different cultures, a people from different backgrounds, and appreciating and recognizing that the world is much bigger than the world that you live in. And taking into account those people's experiences and understanding the context in which they were raised and why they think the way they think, and especially in the classroom environment when you are doing a lot of debates, and especially in my area of study, they are always doing a lot of debates back-and-forth, and thinking about different issues. You come back with a greater appreciation of why people think the way they think, and more respect for why people think the way they think. So I really think I enjoyed my time. And my love for going over to Wales. To this day I love to travel. Whether it's in the United States or if it's overseas, I find immense joy in traveling, meeting new people, sharing new cultures and learning about different things that makes each country or state unique.

JH: And she has had plenty of opportunity to put this experience to work in her career. Especially in her previous role with the Youth Transitions Collaborative, she interacted with a number of international groups through the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), funded by the US Department of State. This connection originally came through Judy Heumann, a longtime disability activist.

JQ: And so in my previous role in working with the Youth Transitions Collaborative, which was a collaborative of 50 organizations for young people with disabilities transitioning from high school to postsecondary life, that means education, employment or independent living, we met with delegations from Sweden, Ukraine, Venezuela and delegations from the Middle East. So they met with us to get kind of a national perspective. And they met a lot of other national organizations as well. And they travel to other states. And they were there specifically to learn about how we collaborated with each other, because so many times national organizations, especially organizations that are involved in the same work, we get into silos and we don't communicate with each other. We don't know what each other is doing, even though we are serving the same population of students. So the whole idea of the Youth Transitions Collaborative is that we would share our information and resources with each other, and to the public, and that we work together better, when we communicate with each other and collaborate with each other. So that's what we would share to the international delegations when they came to visit us.  

JH: And during those interactions, Jessica drew from her international exchange in Wales.

JQ:  I think the one thing that I learned in Wales that really helped me have conversations along with my colleagues with these international delegations that we have been very blessed to have met with was allowing time for the conversations to take place. We move in such a fast-paced society. We want to quicken we want it now. And in some cultures you really have to take your time, have conversations think about things and reflect. And so when we met with them we wanted to ensure that we really have the time to meet, and have a discussion, and really have a conversation back and forth so that we can learn just as much as they are learning. That it's not just something where they are just snapping their fingers and saying okay we finished this check it off the list to move on.

JH: You don't have to be planning a career in international relations for international exchange to be impactful. Jessica Queener finds benefit from her international exchange every time she connects with people from a different background or way of thinking, which in her line of work happens often.

Finally, before we conclude, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage you to consider your own international exchange plans. Take a look at our resources to start thinking about how you will make your mark on the world, and how the world will make its mark on you.

JH: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast please leave us a review on iTunes and consider sharing us with your networks. Also, let us know what you think on Twitter @MobilityINtL or Facebook mobility international USA using the hashtag #LifeAfterExchange.

And to learn more about #LifeAfterExchange go to