Encouraging Others to See the World

Juanita Lillie with other program participants under waterfalls in rockclimbing gear
To escape Michigan's cold winter, Juanita Lillie sought Spanish immersion in Central America, where she found warmth not only from the sunshine, but from classmates, professors, and the community.

MIUSA: Was traveling to Costa Rica your first time leaving the United States?

Juanita: Although studying abroad in Costa Rica and Panama was my first time leaving the United States, my first international experience was technically at age two and a half. This was when I first came to the United States from Colombia to live with my adoptive parents in Coopersville, Michigan.

When I grew older, I started taking Spanish in high school. As my friends and family went abroad, I decided that one day I would too.

Thanks to the influence of my friends and family, and motivation from my college professors, it finally happened during my fourth year of studying Spanish at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

What was it like applying for a study abroad program?

I started by speaking with my advisor and going to the study abroad office for help with finding a program that would meet my home university’s requirements as well as my personal interests.

My first choice study program was not very supportive of my disability, telling me that I would have to hire an assistant at my own cost, and that I would have to have others assist me in filling out their inaccessible forms. It was discouraging. I knew that going abroad with a visual impairment would be challenging, but it seemed like this program did not want to help me out. I passed and decided to search for a program that inspires all students to go abroad.

In contrast, the staff person I spoke to at the study abroad organization International Studies Abroad (ISA) was beyond helpful, sending me documents via email and checking in with me to ensure that I was able to fill out the required paperwork. I also liked that ISA’s program in Costa Rica offered the option to live with a host family, which was important to me for additional language immersion. From there, I worked with advisors from both my university and ISA to make sure I had everything I needed.

The Disability Support Services at my home university also helped suggest accommodations to use, and tips for finding living arrangements and adapting academic materials.

Luckily, Costa Rica isn’t as expensive as other places, such as Europe, so I took out a loan. I also approached the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons in Michigan to ask if they would sponsor me to help pay for my program fees, which they did.

Did you use any disability-related accommodations during your travels?

I am legally blind and I used a cane when I went to Costa Rica and Panama. In the classroom I used my personal computer and iPad to complete coursework because instructors were more than willing to send my assignments via email. I also had extremely helpful classmates and host family members assist me throughout our adventures. In fact, everyone in my group was very supportive, not only towards me, but towards one another.

My advice to anyone who uses a mobility device abroad is to find local businesses or organizations that can replace or repair them. I say this because I lost my cane in the ocean while our group was in Panama! My friends helped me out until we returned to Costa Rica, where fortunately one of the professors know about a local business that sold canes.

Many people in Costa Rica were very impressed to see a blind person walking around independently, avoiding pot holes, or going to school with friends. Then again, a lot of people back in the U.S. have a similar reaction, so it wasn’t that much different!

Because of my Latin American roots and appearance, many Costa Ricans assumed that I was a local. If I was with a group of American friends, the Costan Rican people we met would often address me – in Spanish – instead of others in the group, assuming I was the interpreter. I didn’t really mind.

Considering the times in the U.S. when people would address my friends instead of me due to my disability (for example at a restaurant, waiters would assume that I couldn’t order for myself), it was an interesting role reversal, not to mention a great way to get some extra language practice!

How did going abroad impact you, personally and academically?

People in Costa Rica really care about each other and are always willing to lend a helping hand. I think that aspect of the culture really influenced me to try to be more giving, and be more active in the community. Going abroad especially motivated me to want to help other people, especially diverse students, achieve their goals to study, work, or intern abroad. I’d love to work as a study abroad advisor or as an advisor to international students coming to the U.S., focusing on reaching diverse students.

Outreach is important. Marketing, through posters, or other materials is one way. At our university, we have a study abroad fair where study abroad alumni talk about their experiences. I think they could invite more people with disabilities, and other diverse groups, to attend the fair.

I’ve been working with one of my professors at Grand Valley to think of ways to reach more diverse students to go abroad. I had been told that I was the first person with a visible disability at my school to study abroad. I found this hard to believe. Maybe there were others who had gone who hadn’t shared their story. That’s how I got the idea to create the Students with Disabilities Study Abroad page on Facebook – to give students a platform to share their stories and resources with others.

Juanita went on to found Abroad with Disabilities (see website in Related Links below) and to work as Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator for ISA.