Ripple Effects 2.3: Finding Community through Disability Identity

Shivangi in her graduation regalia.
Growing up in New Delhi with physical disabilities, Shivangi Agrawal lived life to the fullest. Yet, something was missing. Upon completing her Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and Bio Cultural Anthropology from Oregon State University, she discovered what that was.

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Episode Transcript

Justin: Support for Ripple Effects comes from the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, sponsor of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, administered by Mobility International USA. To learn more go to www.MIUSA.org.

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I'm Justin Harford, Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA, bringing you a second season of Ripple Effects, travelers with disabilities abroad. This time , as part of our #Access2USA campaign, we bring you the stories of international students with disabilities studying in the United States. The goal is that more people will hear the stories and start to think about what is possible.

Shivangi Agrawal has just finished up her bachelor's degree at Oregon State University in Psychology and Bio Cultural Anthropology. Born with congenital disabilities in the hands and legs, she has three fingers on each hand, and she uses specially fitted prosthetic shoes to walk.

Justin: Growing up in New Delhi India with a very noticeable physical disability, Shivangi Agrawal had achieved a good life. She excelled in school and had plenty of friends, but she still looked for more. First, while her disabilities had not kept her from success, they sometimes left her feeling like an outsider.

Shivangi: So I did not grow up with a lot of people who were disability conscious and back in India people would stare, point and ask questions all the time. And I did not like the attention so I would just try to I just wanted to blend in in In the crowd and I did everything I could to fit in and to draw attention away from my very obvious physical disabilities so it was a difficult journey and I feel like I really lost my disability identity I guess. I couldn't really talk about it to people, I couldn't really bring it up. I didn't want to bring it up and talk about it and if people asked me I would like react negatively and so it wasn't a great experience.

Justin: Second, she was looking for the resources and opportunities that an education in the United States could give her.

Shivangi: For me what inspired me the most was just the motivation I got from my parents. They always wanted to send me to the U.S. to study abroad and get my bachelor's degree here. And even like my master's for more job opportunities because they knew that people with disabilities are more like have a better life outcomes here.

Justin: And third, she just wanted to experience American society first hand.

Shivangi: I watched a lot of American TV shows and I was really fascinated by the life here, and it really helps me to have a dream to come here.

Justin: Eventually her dream to study in the United States came true when she arrived in 2011 to begin her bachelor's program at Oregon State University; however, she immediately realized that she needed a way to connect with the community where she was living.

Shivangi: Reaction when I first came here, but when my mother was leaving I felt so sad, I felt so alone. And I realized for the first time what I had got myself into.

Justin: So Shivangi began to look for ways to get involved in her community.

Shivangi: What I was looking for was a social belonging which I lacked even in India, where I couldn't really talk about my disability with other people with disability.

Justin: She found some of that connection with the disability community first through a wheelchair basketball team.

Shivangi: But there was this wheelchair basketball club where I met like really amazing people. I went on some tournaments to Portland like wheelchair basketball tournaments and I met amazing amazing people. I met a girl who had like exactly the same hand with three fingers as me.

Justin: But eventually she started to feel the desire to make a greater difference in her community.

Shivangi: When I first came to this… to this country, it was hard to adjust and I feel like… like striving towards leadership was something that helped me the most. I found mentors and other students who were you know activists, and they motivated this leadership component, where you should become empowered, and not just like speak and have good communication, but also have confidence in yourself to believe in yourself, and know that you are worth something, and foster like really good friendships.

Justin: Some of these opportunities came through the International Cultural Service Program offered by OSU, which paid the majority of Shivangi's costs in exchange for her time, sharing about her country with members of the local community.

Shivangi: A few terms ago I was invited to go to speak at this philosophy class about Hinduism and religion in India, and that was very interesting.

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Justin: Are you an international student with a disability who has studied or who is studying in the United States? #Access2USA needs you. Learn more about how you can join the #Access2USA campaign, tell us your story and share your insights. @MobilityINTL on Twitter, Mobility International USA on Facebook and www.MIUSA.org for our website.

Justin: While her student visa limited the places that she could work, she found opportunities through her university through what we call in the United States, work-study, where you take a job on campus in exchange for credit towards your tuition. Shivangi found a few opportunities, but one in particular that stands out is her time at the Women's Center, which addressed women's issues on campus, in the community-at-large, and globally.

Shivangi: I hosted a lot of events, I did budgeting,  advertising and a lot of collaboration work.

Justin: And she even found that her experience as an international student from India met that she had a particularly unique contribution to make.

Shivangi: And so I did Bollywood movie nights and then I progressed into doing like activist collaborative events.

Justin: As she got more involved, Shivangi learned that her disability wasn't just an individual defect or sickness, but a key part of her identity that made her unique. She was not getting these amazing opportunities despite her disability, but because of it.

Shivangi: I could think about it, about myself in better ways than I had before and get to know myself better and like if issues came up with like friends or with family I was able to bring it up better because of meeting all these amazing people.

Justin: So, if you are someone with a disability thinking about studying in the United States, or you are currently here doing a degree program, remember that it is not just the credential that you leave with, but the relationships and community connections that will make you better professionally and personally.

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I'm Justin Harford and thank you for listening to Ripple Effects. Visit www.MIUSA.org to learn more about Mobility International USA and our mission to advance disability rights and leadership globally, and to share with us your Ripple Effect.