Ripple Effects 1.6: The Power of Integration

Erinn standing in front of mountains in Spain.
Erinn smiles standing in front of the Spanish mountains, knowing she will be back again.
"...don’t let someone tell you that you can’t go because there are always accommodations so just go and enjoy life..."

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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.

Episode Transcript: 

Support for the Ripple Effects podcast comes from the US Department of State, the sponsor of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange Project with Mobility International USA. Learn more about the Clearinghouse at miusa.org.

[Intro music]

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 our #BlindAbroad campaign from our National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange project. 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.

[Music interlude]

Monica: Erinn Snoeyink, a blind woman, has studied and taught abroad in Spain and loves her independence. Listen as she speaks about the advantages of integrating into her community, which by doing so offered opportunities to do what she wanted, with who she wanted, and all at the same time of enjoying her independence.

Monica: Hi Erinn, thank you so much for joining us today.

Erinn:      Thank you, Monica, it’s an honor to be here.

Monica: Great! I just have to tell you we just listened to your choir group in Spain and it always brings the biggest smile to my face when I listen to it. And I have listened to it multiple times. Can you tell us what that was from? That was from your first trip, wasn’t it? Or the last one?

Erin:         It was from the last one and that was a choir that the director of the high school where I worked at put together and it was people from the community and some faculty, parents, and students from the high school.

Monica: Nice. It is such a beautiful sound. I’m not sure what you’re singing, what the meaning is, but it is really beautiful.

Erinn:      Thanks.

Monica: Speaking of that trip, you’ve been on two programs. One study abroad and one teach abroad and I thought this would be a really good episode just to kind of compare both of them together and just hear about your experiences from the first one and kind of you later experience and together. So just to begin, do you mind letting us know more about yourself, where you grew up, and what your hobbies were, and maybe your level of independence growing up in your community?

Erinn:      Well, I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I’ve been here all of my life. I am totally blind with the exception of light perception, which means that I can see dark and light and was born that way. I went to Hope College and I majored in Spanish and I minored in Religion. I also sing and play the guitar so I did like Spanish chapel while I was in college so we would sing sort of church songs in Spanish. I did that with a professor. Yes, it was a lot of fun. Now I am looking to get my Master’s in TESL, which is teaching English to speakers of other languages for those who may not know. And I’m looking into a private tutoring jobs. At the time of this recording I’ll start one next week. And I’m also currently a board member of Abroad with Disabilities. You’ve already had an episode with Juanita the Director so I am on her Board and I’ve been with them for about a year.

Monica: Before your program, your undergraduate program, did you travel internationally before?

Erinn:      No I really just travelled during the one trip that I did that wasn’t study, our work was to Nicaragua, and it was a week-long mission trip and I did do that before I went to Spain.

Monica: So for your first program you were studying Spanish and Religion so that kind of led you to start thinking about studying abroad and kind of the immersion program of it?

Erinn:      Yes, because Spanish was my major I kind of felt that if I didn’t go abroad I would not be legit, for lack of a better term, and so I felt a lot of pressure to do that. Good pressure, and so then I went to the Study Abroad office and started looking into programs.

Monica: Did you hear about it before you intentionally went to the Study Abroad office, like was your program speaking about it, did you hear about any opportunities, or did you have to go to the office to find out what kind of options you had?

Erinn:      I knew people that had gone abroad before, like my Spanish teacher in high school who also went to Hope. So she told us a little bit about her experience with a host family. So I knew that I wanted to go but I definitely consulted the Study Abroad office as far as what programs were available.

Monica: Can you tell us about the program you chose and that you went on?

Erinn:      It was in Seville, Spain, through a program called CIEE. And so I took like four different classes and I lived with the host family. The classes were in Spanish and then I did extracurricular activities on the side. Like I joined an interest group and we went on various excursions so it was a program where the classes that I took anyway, I was with other Americans and then the activities were with them as well.

Monica:  Was it a pretty strict schedule that you had places to go and a routine already set up with the academic course and your excursions and different activities?

Erinn:      Yeah, it really was. I had to do classes every day at the same time and all that.

Monica:  How long did you say the program was?

Erinn:      Three months.

Monica:  What kind of arrangements did you have to make before you went? When you arrived to Spain.

Erinn:      The big thing was to have an assistant. There was a professor I had in college and when he heard that I was going to Spain he went to the Study Abroad office and was saying and I think it was mainly because of the part of the country I was going to how it wasn’t safe for me because of the way that people drove and how the streets were. And he was right. Because really, once I was walking on the street and I heard a car going by you’ve got about 30 seconds to step on the curb before the car. It was very narrow, so I wasn’t able to leave the house without one of my assistants.

Monica:  And so other than that, did the accommodations and everything go pretty smoothly?

Erinn:      Yes. Everything else besides that was just really normal things that I already received in college such as getting my materials beforehand and in an accessible format that could I read and none of my professors or the program had a problem with that.

Monica:  And what did you enjoy most about that experience?

Erinn:      That’s a big question!

Monica:  Everything!

Erinn:      Yes, everything. That’s the one where I went on the most excursions so I would say that I enjoyed that most because I went to like five different cities and I think my favorite one was when I went to Cadiz and I swam in the ocean and that was my first time in salt water.

Monica: And did you feel pretty integrated within the community or was it more just within your group, the Americans that were on the program with you?

Erinn:      I feel like I felt more that way with the Americans. I had my host family and then maybe a couple of friends from the church that I found. But other than that, and also because it was such a short time I didn’t make that close of a friendships.

Monica:  Did you find anything challenging about the trip, the first time?

Erinn:      I think some classes at first, especially the history one, and the professor that I had talked really fast so trying to take notes and in a completely different language and it’s like almost you have to study in that language and everything so . . .

Monica:  Well it seems like you then got the bug to go back, as they say, whenever you start with that first international experience. Then it just kind of creates that bug and you cannot stop going back. So then how long after did you look to go on your second program to Spain?

Erinn:      Let’s see . . . I graduate from Hope in 2013, and the semester that I went was the Fall semester of my Senior year. So maybe a year after I went I attended a conference in Minneapolis that CIEE had where they wanted me to speak, to have me talk about my experience, the accommodations I received. And when I was there the person who invited me told me about the Teach Abroad jobs that they had and I didn’t even know that they did. So she really encouraged me to apply and my sister-in-law went with me to this conference as sort of an assistant and she was saying you’re not married right now, like I have basically a mortgage and a house and things and I’m settled so do this before you are settled because . . .

Monica: Go be free!

Erinn:      Yes, exactly! So with that I applied and I didn’t know that I wanted to be a teacher at the time and I actually had a different experience in college when I taught ESL with two other students who were sighted and I didn’t really feel like I did much. So that deterred me from that. But I said, why not, and I took the course to get the certificate and I realized that if I do this on my own and now that I have this knowledge, it seems to be more appealing and I would really like a second time to go back to Spain and have it be a little bit longer and have a different experience than the first time.

Monica:  What type of certificate did you have to do? Was it through CIEE, or through like a TESL certification?

Erinn:      It was through them, like they offered the option of taking the class.

Monica:  And how long did that take you?

Erinn:      It was a ten week course. At first I get the General Certificate and I did one for teaching young learners because I was originally going to work with young kids and then that was three weeks.

Monica:  And so then when you were kind of reflecting on your first experience and then planning for your second did you start thinking about things you wanted to do differently the second time around?

Erinn:      I was hoping that the second time I would be able to be a little bit more independent especially because I was going to have more time staying there than I did the first time. So I was hoping to connect with more people in the community and be able to learn to get places and do more things by myself than the first time.

Monica:  Because the first time you were fully dependent on the assistant, correct?

Erinn:      Yes.

Monica:  Can you let us know more a little bit more about the second program, how long it was then, and what city you were in?

Erinn:      It was six months; I was in Toledo. Which Sevilla, where I was the first time was near a south country and Toledo is a little bit closer to Madrid. And it was for six months. The first month I actually worked with younger children and because things didn’t go very well at the school like it was more difficult for me to be accommodated and because the family I was living with had two children, there wasn’t as much time for me to assist me. So then I move and I ended up in the house of a couple with no children, who treated me like a daughter and took me everywhere with them. And at a high school where I got work with older kids and found that that was more comfortable for me because they could speak more English and I could relate to them. And I found that the professors and I worked very well together and I was well accommodated.

Monica:  What kind of accommodations did you have to request for that program?

Erinn:      Yes, that’s a bit different because I worked instead of studied. So I guess I would say that I needed them from my employer and instead of how I received the materials it was a little bit that I needed my class schedule in a format that I could read. But I also need to let them know that I needed to do things a little differently, like I’m going to need your help if I’m going to write on the board or if there are any oral type things that have to do with the students then I need to memorize it beforehand or do it somehow a different way.

Monica:  Were all the students sighted?

Erinn:      Yes.

Monica:  And how was that for their first time? What was their initial kind of reaction to being taught by someone who was blind?

Erinn:      Yeah, they didn’t really. . .  I remember that I did this little icebreaker with them called Two Truths and a Lie. So, if you don’t know, you have to say three things about yourself and two of them are true and one of them is a lie and they have to pick which one is a lie. And my truth, one of the things that I said was that I have driven a truck. Which I actually have done before, in the church parking lot. And I did doughnuts but of course most people either said that was the lie or they would just make up or choose one of the other things to not mention it. But they were really shy about it. I was like, why did you think that was the lie? Well, because . . . it’s almost like they didn’t want to mention it. If anything, they were kind of shy about it.

Monica:  Did you have to communicate to them more about maybe how you needed them to be in class, so you could support them or teach them more effectively?

Erinn:      Yes. The professor and I tried to give the students the opportunity at the beginning to ask any questions that they wanted about how I did things so that they would know what a class would be like.

Monica:  And how was the whole experience for you? Did that kind of trigger you to pursue TESL long-term?

Erinn:      It really did. After I took the course I figured I would really want to do it and the experience I had solidified that.

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: I know you mentioned a lot of ways this time that you did integrate more in your community and then we even listened to the choir group as one of the instances. Can you talk more about all of the ways that you integrated more with the local community for the second Teach Abroad program?

Erinn:    Well, I did have a couple of assistants like last time. But they only took me to school and back. And that was an arrangement where I needed to help cover the cost, but I relied more on my host family and my friends because then a) it wouldn’t cost, and b) because I wanted to, like I said; it was still difficult for me, I couldn’t leave the house actually. The first place where I was it was a smaller neighborhood so I learned how to walk from my house at school. And I think if I would have been there for the whole six months I would have learned that. The second place where I was wasn’t as safe. And I didn’t get O&M training as I hoped I would. Because the Spanish organization over there for individuals who are blind is unfortunately doesn’t work with people who are not Spaniard or who are not affiliated with them. So before someone I did have to rely on strangers a lot, which if I would say something to someone that I was getting to know or someone at home, “why are you doing that” or “why are you talking to strangers?” I didn’t really have a choice. One guy, who saw me lost and really terrified because I didn’t know where I was, well that’s how I ended up getting a job teaching his children English and getting paid for it. And then as far as the choir group, that was just because someone came up to me and asked me about it because she heard that I wanted to sing. And then when I went to the house of the new host family from my church and then I started going there with them and then to the youth group for the younger people on Saturdays, so I was able to get to know more people in the community because I was doing things through there instead of being around all the Americans all the time.

Monica: Yes, you can see all those benefits and just by communicating and being open and this sounds like one opportunity led to another and different relationships and friendships that helped you get around, but then also added so much to your trip of those relationships that you build. Do you see, I guess, the biggest benefit that you can see, or not even the biggest, but I guess integrating more with the community compared to the first time was your independence was pretty important to you. And I guess going forward if you plan your next trips can you think of things that you would do again?

Erinn:    Well, if I were to go back and I know I mentioned this to you, but I had a possible opportunity to come back in the Fall teaching and I’m not sure that’s going to work, but if I do go back there or to another country in the future, then instead of living with a host family this time I might live in a flat like I was going to have to find an apartment for this next time around. And then that would have made me more independent and I would have to cook for myself and find out where the stores are in Spain and what kind of food I can get in Spain that I can cook for myself. So I think each time more and more like the first time I couldn’t live without an assistant. The second time I didn’t rely as much on the assistants and the third time maybe I can live by myself and then each time just keep adding and adding things.

Monica: It seems that no matter what challenges you faced on each program you kept learning more about yourself in those situations such as the power of integrating your community and this constant learning and growing kept you wanting to go back for more as were hearing, so based on your experiences what would be your Ripple Effect Message for our listeners as they think about going abroad and possible challenges that they may face?

Erinn:    Definitely plan ahead as far as those accommodations. If you can’t get exactly what you want then negotiate and be accepting of whatever is offered that can still work. But at the same time don’t let someone tell you that you can’t go because there are always accommodations so just go and enjoy life as if you were living in this country but experiencing a different culture and a different language.

Monica: Thank you, Erinn, so much for sharing your Ripple Effect Message with us, and for participating in the #BlindAbroad campaign for these last few months. Thank you for your time.

Erinn:    Thank you, Monica.

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.