Intersecting Paths: A Study Abroad Provider and an Alumna Join Forces

Close up of two women leaning heads together and smiling. Woman on right holds a white cane.
Juanita pictured (right) with Monica Malhotra of MIUSA at a recent NAFSA conference, where the two co-presented a diversity session.
Now a graduate student, Juanita Lillie reunites with the organization that first sent her abroad. This time around, she joins them not as a participant, but as a colleague to share and expand knowledge around diversity in international education.

Working virtually out of Michigan, Juanita is a long way from her supervisor in Colorado and her colleagues operating out of Massachusetts and Texas. Yet, from Juanita's perspective, the collaborative way in which the team works together seems to diminish the distance between them.

"What I really like about my co-workers is that they connect and communicate; they can really relate to people, and honestly that's why I studied abroad with them in the first place."

Back as an undergraduate student, Juanita had shopped around for overseas opportunities before eventually landing on International Studies Abroad (ISA) as the provider to facilitate her studies in Costa Rica. Where other organizations' lack of encouragement and disability-related support stood out, ISA's staff were "beyond helpful," sending her application materials in accessible formats and checking in with her along the way.

So it comes as no surprise that, even years after returning from her studies in Costa Rica, ISA held a special place in Juanita's heart when it came time to select a site for her graduate-level practicum, a required component of her International Education degree at the School for International Training (SIT). Wishing to expand their initiatives in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, ISA once again met Juanita with encouragement, working with her to create a custom practicum that would allow her to focus on these issues.

But it wasn't just her role as an ISA alumna that made Juanita a great fit for the new Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator position.

In addition to having had personal experience studying abroad as a blind student, Juanita had also founded the organization Abroad with Disabilities (AWD), worked with staff at her alma mater to advise on inclusive study abroad, and even presented at the international education conference NAFSA to bring topics related to disability inclusion to the forefront. And those experiences are paying off in her current work.

"The projects I’m working on are expanding the organization's internal resources and connections to build up its diversity and accessibility initiatives. We're incorporating principles of inclusion in all areas, whether it's the website, training manuals, staff trainings...it’s wonderful!"

Every job has pros and cons, but Juanita observes that what makes her job challenging is also what makes it invigorating.

"I'm working with individuals with very different levels of knowledge, skills, abilities, and awareness around diversity and accessibility. But that's what I love about it at the same time! I get to learn from different cultural and regional perspectives."

Another aspect of the work that Juanita finds fascinating takes place at the intersections of diverse identities, such as a person with a disability who is also a person of color, a second language learner, or part of the LGBTQI+ community.

"There are so many identities that make up one individual, so my biggest challenge is being able to identify the best resources and supports available for those identities, both separated and intersected."

Juanita's appreciation for and knowledge of diversity will serve her well throughout her flourishing career in international education, whether her future leads her to work at a college or university, at a study abroad provider, or even at a host institution abroad. For now, though, she is maximizing her time with ISA.

"Being able to learn from different organizational perspectives and learning different approaches to international education is amazing, and I want to do more of it."

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in October, this story is part of a series spotlighting young professionals with disabilities gaining work experience in the field of international education. Get your foot in the door in this exciting field!

Author: 

Ashley Holben