"We Always Found a Way to Make it Work"

Shannon in front of mountain vista with three other young women
Shannon (second from left) enjoys a spectacular view of South Africa's mountains with fellow students.
A study abroad program designed to include all students meant that Shannon Kelly, who uses a wheelchair, spent less time worrying about accommodations and more time exploring South Africa.

MIUSA: How did you become interested in international exchange?

Shannon: I always loved traveling around the United States with my family, but I decided that I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and travel abroad. Before starting college, I had volunteered in Costa Rica for three weeks and was so moved by the experience that as soon as I got back, I was already thinking of where to go next!

You then joined a study abroad program in South Africa. What was unique about this program that made you want to participate?

The program I chose was a summer study tour through the University of Illinois which allows students to experience how families are structured in a different country. I had heard that the faculty member leading this program, Jan, was trying hard to make it accessible to accommodate a student in a wheelchair, so I contacted her to learn more about it.

How did you fund your exchange?

I paid for the bulk of my study abroad expenses out of my own pocket, but I was also lucky to receive a small scholarship from the University of Illinois.

How did you prepare for accessibility?

Jan knew that she wanted to make her Cape Town trip accessible, so she started to plan for it in advance. She made sure that our living accommodations, volunteer placements, and cultural activities and excursions were accessible. Our hostel had ramps, plus large bedrooms and bathrooms for easy access. Since she put in all that time, that took a lot of stress out of the experience for me, since I didn't have to worry about accommodations as much.

There were still some struggles when getting around in my manual wheelchair. For example, not all the sidewalks had curb cuts and some of the buildings were small or didn't have ramps. However, we always found a way to make things work, and accessibility was much better than I expected.

What did you do while you were in South Africa?

There are so many beautiful sights to see in Cape Town, and we tried to do as much as possible in the three weeks, from petting a cheetah at a wildlife preserve to visiting Nelson Mandela's prison cell. One of my favorite memories was attending a South African church. It was so inspiring to sing and worship with the community.

Besides doing tourist activities, we also volunteered in various placements for two weeks. I volunteered in a school for students with disabilities, and some of my peers volunteered in an orphanage and others in a women's shelter. This was one of the main focuses of the trip, since it showed us what families' and students' lives are like in other countries.

What were some of the interactions you had with local people?

We met a lot of people during our volunteer placements and while we toured the townships. South Africa faces a lot of poverty, which is a result of the Apartheid which was a big part of their history. Despite the fact that these people live in poverty, they are some of the happiest people I've ever met. They know their neighbors, they help each other out, they are full of life, they try their best with what they have and live simply. It is a mindset that I think everyone should try to adopt.

How have your international experiences affected you and your future plans?

Volunteering and studying abroad has given me a dose of courage, the ability to be independent, and lifelong friends. Because I have found a love for travel, I am working towards a Global Studies minor. I am excited to continue traveling and exploring new cultures and plan to study abroad for a semester next year!

What would be your advice to other people with disabilities considering international exchange?

Go for it! Traveling with a disability is hard but that doesn't mean it isn't doable. If I wouldn't have taken that first leap of faith to go to Costa Rica, I would be a different person than I am today. The struggles I have faced while traveling have made me a stronger person. So plan ahead, find a travel companion willing to help you, and keep an open mind!