Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad, a podcast from Mobility International USA, where we hear the powerful and vivid stories from people with disabilities going abroad and the positive impact these experiences have on shifting ideas, for everyone, of what is possible.
For our first podcast series we will hear from people who are blind or low vision as part of #BlindAbroad, a campaign from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange project sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. We hope the heart of their stories resonates with you the listeners to empower more people with disabilities to go abroad.
I’m Monica Malhotra, a Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA and your host for Ripple Effects.
Adriana Pulido, an aspiring musician and linguist from Colombia had never left her country until she realized there was something else she wanted to achieve. She went from singing, playing the piano, and playing heavy metal one day to being one of the first people with a disability in Colombia to receive a Fulbright scholarship to pursue her graduate studies. She was accepted to the University of Florida in Gainesville to pursue her Masters in Mass Communications, focusing on the social inclusion of people with disabilities in Colombia. Let’s hear from Adriana as she tells us about applying for the Fulbright and how it impacted her personally and professionally.
Monica: Hi Adriana, thank you for joining us today on this episode about your Fulbright experience in the United States.
Adriana: Hi Monica, thank you very much for this invitation.
Monica: Before we speak more specifically about your experience here, I want to hear what was life like before you even heard about the application and before you applied for the Fulbright scholarship. What were you up to in Colombia, were you working, going to school?
Adriana: I had a normal life as a blind person. I had my family, I had friends, I had my boyfriend. And I also had worked on the inclusion topics at the university where I studied my undergrad course in Linguistics. So I was kind of living a normal life but I also wanted to have new experiences.
Monica: I remember we spoke before, that even outside of that you were pretty heavily involved in music. That was also a big part of you.
Adriana: Oh yeah. I studied music since I was a child. The conservatory I played the piano. I began when I was nine years old or something. So I studied music at the same time with my elementary and high school. And, you know, it was great when I was at school because I was kind of the famous person. Everyone wanted to be with me, with the famous one, you know.
Monica: So did you ever think about studying in the US before you learned about the Fulbright opportunity?
Adriana: Yes, definitely. It was something I wanted to do. And when I knew about this Fulbright scholarship I said, well, this is a great opportunity to do it. And, you know, also, one of my main interests was to continue working for the inclusion of people with disabilities. Not only in Colombia but also Latin America, hopefully. And, you know, in Colombia there are almost 3 million people with disabilities. There are a lot of things to do. And also of course I had some personal reasons. One of them is I wanted to improve my English which was not bad but could be better anyway. And also I wanted to of course live new experiences, you know, travel abroad, which was one of my biggest dreams. And I also wanted to kind of expand my knowledge in order to widen my view of the world of disability itself. So there are many, many reasons why I decided to apply.
Monica: So many benefits.
Adriana: Definitely. Not only for me but also other people with disabilities. Hopefully.
Monica: Yes, it will happen. It does happen. So how was the application process? Whenever you started it did you find it smooth, or challenging? How did it go for you?
Adriana: The application process was long. I took it seriously, almost as a job, as my daily job. I was looking at the website, you know early in the morning. I spent like five months doing that. Like doing everything and reviewing things. . . I’m writing the essays which you know was one of the most important parts of the application. And also because you have two phases. So the first one is like the first application. You fill out but then there is the application you fill out when you have been chosen as a Fulbright grantee. There is a second part which is you know as long as the first one and is kind of more complicated. There is a moment when you have to decide which universities you really want to study in. But anyway, it was a nice process to fill out the application. It was accessible so I didn’t have like real difficulties in doing that.
Monica: What were your initial cultural experiences when you got to the United States?
Adriana: So in the beginning I was a little bit afraid but also was overwhelmed by everything. Impressed by everything. Getting used to listening to people speak English everywhere. Feeling how big was everything, because everything is really, really big in the US. I was enjoying the weather, enjoying the change. I tried to enjoy after I let my fears just go away I started like enjoying things.
Monica: We want to take this time to promote our #BlindAbroad campaign, where our aim is to increase awareness to people who are blind or low vision on the benefits of going abroad. With a big thanks to our sponsors at the U.S. Department of State. You can learn more about the #BlindAbroad campaign by going to our website: miusa.org. And also make sure to follow us on twitter @MobilityINTL and #BlindAbroad. We’d love to see your comments and let others read your messages too.
Monica: Did you experience kind of the cultural differences of having a disability in the United States and how you navigated around versus how it was in Colombia for you?
Adriana: Definitely. I have to say I love the way you guys face disability. It’s great. Because you see disability as a normal thing. You know, having a disability in the US is like being tall, short, fat, or thin or something, whatever. It’s kind of just one more feature you have. But it is not an impairment. Something that I really like which is different. In Colombia it is very frequent to receive unwanted help offers. Sometimes you are just walking up the street and people just grab your arm and say to you where do you want to go? Don’t worry, I’m ok, but they kind of don’t believe you but they kind of feel they have the obligation to help you because you are blind or because you have a disability. And it doesn’t happen in the US. In the US they just ask me, do you need any help, or are you ok. And I can say I’m ok, thank you. They don’t really care if you have a disability. You have to fulfill the deadlines with the other students. You have to get your work done, your assignments done, like with the same quality as those without disabilities. They expect much from you, and especially if they know you are a Fulbright scholar. They are kind of demanding.
Monica: A victim of your own success.
Adriana: That’s right!
Monica: Did you receive your accommodations pretty easily whenever you arrived?
Adriana: Yes. They have a disability resource center. And one of the first things for a blind student is to get instruction on orientation and mobility. That’s essential, that’s critical. So it was one of the first things we did at the university was learn how to get to my classrooms, how to get to my office, how to get from my apartment to the shuttle to pick me up every day. So it is something that really helps you navigate in a very independent way.
Monica: So you’ve been back in Colombia now for a few years, so looking back how would you say the Fulbright scholarship and program benefitted you personally and professionally?
Adriana: Well, the Fulbright scholarship changed my life definitely. First of all it let me be a better person. I think I have a wider perspective of the world, and of people from other countries. It was a great opportunity to learn about other cultures because it is different when you watch TV and watch the news and movies. Because they are full of stereotypes, but it’s different when you have the opportunity to face it in real life. You have the opportunity to really meet people and exchange ideas. And it’s different when you see Americans in movies and when you know them in real life. And when you realize how kind they are to international students, for example. I acquired the necessary knowledge to become a leader in disability topics in my country. I through meetings and through my graduate project was about accessibility to social network sites for blind and visually impaired people. So I could kind of understand how people with disabilities are using social network sites like Facebook, Twitter, and some specific sites for people with disabilities. And of course I could work on accessibility issues and I was exposed to what the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies was doing here. And I kind of had the whole context and I said, well, I have something I would like to work on when I go back to Colombia. So . . . it was really, really worthy for me.
Monica: Yes, especially now with the hype of social media so just making sure that all those different networks are accessible for all people. So that’s a really interesting topic that you focused on already a few years ago.
Adriana: Yes, exactly.
Monica: What kind of tips do you have for future international applicants that are thinking about applying for Fulbright scholarship for their studies or research or maybe they might have some hesitations? What are your tips for them?
Adriana: First of all, work on your English. English is the essential part because sometimes people do not apply for the Fulbright scholarship because they did not know how to speak English correctly. And you have to have a good level, a good English level to face a master’s degree or PhD or whatever. Because you’re going to be reading and writing in English all the time. Improve your English. Take classes, do the necessary things. The second thing is travel alone. I mean it is kind of scary in the beginning and sometimes you just wonder, Oh my gosh what am I doing, why did I do this? But it is a great experience and it is the only way to really find your personal skills that some skills that were probably hidden because of you know your family probably overprotected you because you have a disability. So it is kind of the opportunity to discover who you are. And to discover your ability to solve problems. Because you’re going to have to solve problems. And the other thing is to just relax. Take it seriously, take the application process seriously. Be disciplined to fill out the online application. Ask as many questions as you have to ask just to make sure that everything is going right. Read a lot, read about your topic, read other examples of, for example, the statement of purpose, which is the most important essay on the application is this essay where you say, where you explain the reasons why you want to study in the US and what you’re going to do when you come back to your home country. It has to be absolutely clear. Read a lot, be disciplined, but also relax. I mean if you go to the interview and they don’t choose you the first time you’re going to have a thousand times to try it again. So just enjoy.
Monica: Thank you, Adriana. This has really been great to hear your experience and hear your tips for other international students who might be interested in this really wonderful opportunity that has truly benefitted you to continue work that you already started before you received the scholarship and just kind of gives you more skills and personal gain from your experience in Florida. And so I’d like to end with your Ripple Effect message that you’d like to share with the listeners and for them to share with other people.
Adriana: Alright. My message is: Studying abroad lets you see the world. Because even if we are blind we can see. We can see the world in other ways, we can see people in other ways we can change our perspectives. So, just take the opportunity and go ahead and do it.
Monica: Thank you so much for your time and being part of our Blind Abroad series for the Ripple Effects podcast. I really appreciate this.
Monica: I’m Monica Malhotra, your host for Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad. Thank you for listening and make sure to visit us at miusa.org to learn more about Mobility International USA and our mission to advance disability rights and leadership globally.