Ripple Effects 4.2: Universities Like DU Want You To Go Abroad

In a room full of people seated around round tables, one standing woman leans over a group to join their discussion
International educators, disability services professionals and others engage in small group discussion during a 2018 training held at the University of Denver campus.

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Justin Harford: Ripple effects comes to you from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, a project sponsored by the US Department of State's Bureau of educational and cultural affairs and administered by mobility international USA.

Stephanie Roberts: We want these conversations. It's not something that they are imposing on us by coming to our office with concerns or with questions. It is actually the whole purpose of why we are here, and we welcome those conversations and we want to have them.

Justin: We went to the Association on Higher Education and Disability AHEAD) conference in July 2017. That was where I met Chuck Eade. He told me that the study abroad office of Denver University Where He Works had reached out to his office, the Disability Services Program (DSP) about developing a strategy to include more disabled students in DU international exchange programs. Since then we have had quite a lot of interaction with Chuck, Stephanie Roberts and Denise Cope to plan a workshop for exchange professionals in Colorado to learn about how to be more effective at including people with disabilities in overseas programs. This is not the first time that we have received this kind of request. Universities across the country are looking for ways to make their international exchange programs more diverse by including people of color, LGBT Q people, first-generation students and students with disabilities. We caught up with Stephanie and Chuck to talk about what this has looked like at DU. Whether or not you think study abroad is the right thing for you, I hope that you will take away the fact that like Denver University, your school very likely has similar opportunities and that you would bring a valuable contribution to their programs if you were to consider applying. So let's get started with the interview.

Justin: Today we are joined by Stephanie Roberts and Chuck Eade from Denver University, and  I actually first heard about you when I was meeting Chuck at a conference last year and he mentioned that the director of his study abroad program  was interested in getting more disabled people to study abroad and  had reached out to us since then, so how did that all  start?  --  The initiative to get more disabled people involved in studying overseas.

Stephanie: Yes the director in our office is Denise Coates.  all of us here in our office  take inclusive excellence really seriously. Inclusive excellence is a term at DU that is pretty broadly part of the overall vision. And each of our offices here at DU are really challenged to interpret what does that mean for our unit, and how are we actually putting words, and making an effort to ensure that we are really being as inclusive as we can be. At DU we are very lucky. We have a very strong study abroad program. We send about 59% of our student body abroad, which is very high compared to a lot of other institutions. So in that sense we are very lucky and we are very proud of our program, but we do still have gaps. Among those gaps is really making sure that we are being as intentional as we can be in making sure that all students can see themselves being able to study abroad, whether they choose to pursue that route or not is obviously a personal decision, but we want students to really be able to envision this as an option for them. That has always been clear for us and something we've been working towards. Our relationship with MIUSA really came to be more intentional I think over the last couple years. We have always had your resources on our website. We have always had your resources as something we can direct students to. We have always had a very good relationship with our disability services program office here at DU, but we realize that we can be doing it a lot more intentionally and a lot more proactively to help students see that we are here as a support structure, and not something that is just going to be reactive, but that we are really thinking through a lot of this proactively. So we reached out to you  about a year and a half ago now. And Chuck brought his experience of having worked with you before and knowing you Justin. You got us excited about where this could go.

Chuck. Yes for my quick story. I started here at the University of Denver in April, and had an opportunity to meet Stephanie and Denise at an introductory meeting. One of the things that came up was how can we build on the students with disabilities in study abroad. I had a meeting with Denise and I was able to share that I worked in the housing and residential life area for about seven years, and most of those years I have worked primarily with international students on that side doing different programmatic efforts and encouraging international student to come to our institution and so on the flip side of that really wanting to learn more about the study abroad side to get our students to build their cultural awareness by studying abroad for a quarter. After that meeting with Denise thankfully I was able to meet you Justin at the AHEAD conference, and being able to talk a lot more about what you envision and being able to talk to other institutions to be a catalyst for me to get more excited about what we could do here at DU. And those relationships have just grown. You and I have maintained contact and we have especially been able to meet more people at MIUSA at the regional conference for NAFSA when you  were in Denver. We had a great evening together talking about things and talking about potential for building our programs collaboratively, and this is where we are now. Monica, who is with MIUSA has worked closely with Denise and thankfully you guys are going to be coming out to an internationalization summit in April, in which we are very excited to continue building that awareness, not only for DU but all the constituents that will be visiting during the summit to build awareness for all institutions in the Denver area.

Justin: Yes and I think this is something… I don't know how many people quite are noticing or realizing this but universities like yours around the country are making these efforts, are so energetic about making sure that people that we are sending overseas are as diverse as we are as a country, that you  are organizing trainings with organizations like ours to provide support to both staff in the disability office and staff in the study abroad office about how this works in reality. How do you make reasonable accommodations work sending students with disabilities overseas.

Stephanie: Yes and for us Justin the big piece of our push for that is really the logistics of it. I think our mission is really that students understand what their resources are, who they can go to for what depending on the program that they are choosing, but also where the differences might lie in what they are used to and what they can expect abroad. For example, there is the fact that the ADA does not follow the student 100% abroad. We have to talk to students about what does that actually mean. The ADA is a US law. It does not have jurisdiction in another country, but what does that country offer, what does the institution in that country  they're  planning to go to offer that can be comparable. And that takes planning. That's true for any student. Study abroad is a very involved planning process. It's not just that you pick something and go. We tell students across the board that there are a lot of questions you should be asking yourself about what you are looking for, and for a student with disabilities that is one among many questions that they have just like many other students. But the more that we know on the logistical side how to support them and what to prepare them for and what questions can help them ask the institutions that they are considering, the more that they are informed. They can make educated decisions for themselves about what that reality might look like when they get there.

Justin: Yes thank you Stephanie. Yes for our listeners too… Pointing out the logistical part of it, we cover a lot of that at www.miusa.org. Stephanie I was taking a look at the resources on your website and it was actually really impressive what you have explaining to people what they should be considering when they are planning, and I totally second your comments about that. I spent a year planning my study abroad in Chile. It really does involve a lot of planning.

Stephanie Yes

Justin Yes

Stephanie It does

Justin: I think the other thing to is that we have listeners with disabilities and disability organizations but the other thing to is that there are people that come with all kinds of identities and I have seen too on your website that  It isn't just about disability. You have resources if I'm a person of color, if I'm a person from a LGBTQIA background. There  are all kinds of information that you can read about as you are planning to travel overseas and how your identities will interact with those experiences. What do your initiatives more broadly look like in terms of promoting diversity in your programs?

Stephanie: Yes so really it is an ambitious scope for us, but something that we feel very passionate about. To us diversity is a very broad discussion. Just like you said. We all have complex identities. We all have interconnected identities. Depending on where in the world you are wanting to go, one identity might be more influential than in another. Helping students work through that… We have a department on campus called campus life and inclusive excellence, and it is kind of in the merger of a couple different departments on campus. One of those is the Center for Multicultural Excellence which now falls under that larger department, and those offices have been another strong partner for us in terms of making sure that we are meeting students where they are, also where they have relationships of trust already. So working with the Center for Multicultural Excellence, with international student clubs, identity coalitions on campus. The places that students have already sought out relationships, and support structures that they trust and that they feel heard in, and we don't necessarily need to re-create that. What we can do is be part of where they are already finding those relationships and be invited to those spaces by our partners that are already in the spaces, and have great conversations with students around what the barriers they see to their ability to go abroad might be, what within that might be fears or myths that they are unsure of, what among that might be serious considerations for them to look at but knowing that there are resources to help them move through those questions. Just as with any other student, like you said, we have resources for if you identify as a woman going abroad, identify with the LGBTQ community, if you identify as somebody from a lower economic income level and you are not sure that financially this can work out for you. All of those are things that students need to ask themselves and have us as a resource to help guide them through the resources that they have and help them getting answers to questions that they've got. 

So one of the things that we are really passionate about is just solidifying those relationships across campus and having a more intentional effort around reaching students where they are, talking to them where they already have relationships of trust and just making sure that they feel that our doors are opened and that we want these conversations. It's not something that they are imposing on us by coming to our office with concerns or with questions. It is actually the whole purpose of why we are here, and we welcome those conversations and we want to have them.

Justin: That is such a great point. That last comment that you made resonates with me. I think sometimes for people with disabilities we can be conditioned to just try to deal with it ourselves.  You kind of get the sense that you are creating a lot of extra trouble for a program if you ask for an ASL interpreter, if you ask for something in Braille, and it sounds like what you are saying is people should ask at least, that there can be a conversation, that you  do have sources. In many cases the answer could be a "yes" even if it was expected to be a "no".

Stephanie: Absolutely and with that again this is a message that I have for all students is the need for flexibility. Because it may not be your dream scenario, it may not be your dream answer to the question that you are posing. But what is a realistic answer? How do I go about getting that information? I advocate for myself if I see that my needs are not being met? But how can I use the resources of the study abroad office to help me do that? So flexibility is key in understanding again that realities on the ground going to look different in all different parts of the world. They're not going to be identical. And knowing where your boundary is, what I'm willing to be flexible on and what can I just not be. What is a hard need for me that if that's not available the destination might not be the right fit. Those are honest conversations to be having, and keeping that flexibility in mind.

Justin: Nice. Kind of wrapping up… I wonder if Chuck… I know Stephanie was mentioning about building rapport and how through other offices on campuses the students already have that trust, and I wonder is you could offer a reflection from the perspective of the DSP on what does this look like for you  that you are supporting the study abroad office and also students with disabilities that are looking into study abroad? It could be really broad in terms of what comes to mind.

Chuck: Right. I think the main connection between DSP working with study abroad is, as you know every student has a unique set of accommodations that they are approved for. Sometimes it does need to be adjusted when they choose a destination that might not be able to provide it. So I think it's really important that in our office, if they were to come to us to ask questions on how they can assure access for the destination is to build that education, and be sympathetic in working with them, but just knowing that hey these are going to be part of your real-life scenarios that are going to happen. If you get a job and this isn't there, but this is there how are you going to work through that, and it brings that really unique experience for the student when they study abroad. A new destination is just like a new job. So we really try to focus on that. Some of the things that we've done to alleviate some of the stress and concern is just having individuals from the internationalization department to come to our department and be able to sit there and answer questions of students that are interested in studying abroad, and looking more forward to building collaborations and meetings and workshops that students can be more excited about where… What they can do to study abroad rather than what are my limitations and going from there. Suggest shifting from limitations to opportunities and how can we tackle those opportunities in a proactive way rather than a reactive one.

Justin: Right. What I'm getting from both of you and Stephanie is that sometimes there are certain things that aren't so realistic to expect abroad, and you get them on your home campus, but it's like what you are saying… That totally resonates with me. When I came to my new job it was totally a new culture: a new way of doing things and a totally different set of challenges to resolve. Going overseas has been just a great way to simulate that and to get ready for those challenges in life. I feel like if I'm a student here and I'm somebody listening to this, I’m going to wonder… What exactly does this look like. I was curious if maybe you might have an example of an accommodation that looked different overseas and how that got resolved.

Stephanie: Yes a couple examples come to mind. We had a student who went to Central America and he did everything that he was supposed to do up front. We asked him to provide information on your accommodations. He did have some accommodations in the classroom around extra time on exams, some different accommodations around exam and assignment times, and while on paper the accommodations look very similar. He could still get about time and a half on the exam. There was a structure at the institution that he went through to make those requests and he did that. One thing that he realized, and I think was a great learning experience for him was the cultural differences around how accommodations are viewed, and what is the nature of privacy. One thing he struggled with for example was one professor, as the exam was getting ready to be given said oh you know so-and-so you get some extra time, so you can go ahead and stay later than the other students. They announced that in the middle of the class. We are used to that kind of information being considered private. I tell my professor that this is the accommodations I have arranged, I might have a US perspective and expectation that that is going to stay between me and my professor, and it's my choice to announce that or not. Versus in Latin America, in this context that he was in that wasn't seen as private information. It wasn't seen as bad information. It was the idea of why can't I just say that to the class so that they know why you are getting some extra time. They should know what's going on. That was just a very subtle difference but one that I think he struggled with in terms of just feeling comfortable with that, but then being able to reflect on it and say okay I'm seeing where my frustration is coming from as well, and that was a very small example, but can be a really jarring one if you're not ready for that. Other examples might be around what are time limits in different countries. In the UK you can only get time and a half. That is the maximum on an exam. Any more than that is not possible. Then you have things all the way in other areas of life when you have a physical disability. The campus itself might be accessible, but what about my housing, what about public transportation. So you can see where those conversations get pretty big, and you are never going to have 100% of the answers. Holding yourself to that and thinking oh God I can't go until I know everything is not realistic either, but being able to get a sense of okay this is generally what I can expect, and this is what I know to be prepared for, and if I'm struggling who do I go to, to get some additional support or to help me to understand what's happening. I think that is the best way to approach that kind of planning. At least that's how we approach it in our process.

Chuck: Yes to build on that Justin. I use the term "intentional conversations” and “intentional information." So we need to be very honest with what they could be looking into. A good example would be emotional support animals. They might be approved for one here, and yes it might work out at the destination of choice, but they need to research about the animal. If it is going to be quarantined for four weeks before they get to come home? If there are other paperwork or statutes? And those students confront those questions and that is where the collaboration and the closeness of our departments comes in to where "hey what do you know. Do you have contacts at this destination that we can actually ask these questions and see what is going on with it," and it sometimes will get to the point where we need to contact the country's government to just be able to determine if an Emotional support animal is even viable to even go with the individual there. That is just another accommodation that can really pose some hardships, and build some anxiety for the students as they move forward.

Justin. Yes I have seen cases where it will be perfectly acceptable to have a pet or an animal living with you, but then when it comes to importing the animal, that is a whole different ballgame. Gosh I really appreciate this time that you have had with us , and just one final question. We are going to ask everybody this season. I just want you to share a couple quick comments what diversity means to each of you as we close up here?

Chuck: Diversity is something for me it's a concept that means so many different things. I think that it’s the continuum of learning experience. You are never going to get one answer of what diversity means. And so for me diversity is just… It's like a melting pot. It's an opportunity to build a world of an understanding of another identity whether it's disability or any other identifications that a person would have. So building those conversations and being able to learn… And build awareness so you can have your own perspective on that particular piece of diversity I will say. It is just a fascinating term, but is also such a daunting term too, because when you hear diversity and they say what does that mean you think "oh my gosh what does it mean?" It can mean so many different things. That's the beauty of it, because there are so many different perspectives and definitions to move forward.

Justin: It has really expanded a lot over the years for sure. That is one of the exciting things about how it has just been including more and more people.

Stephanie: Yes. And for me honestly when I think of diversity it is that intentional embracing of how complex we are as people, and to me that's very exciting. Every generation is learning more and more about how to connect with communities that might be different than you are, or expand and find a community that you have some common ground with that you didn't realize you had. So the opportunities to connect that embracing diversity allows us is really pretty exciting. I think it's also challenging. I think that we see that play out all over the world in every aspect of our lives. Cultural clashes among different identities can and do happen. But I think it's good to approach those as opportunities to learn from one another, and really try to better our own understanding of different aspects of identity the more we grow. We are all a complex bag of different identities. Not one of us is ever one thing. But understanding how all of those things are interconnected in ourselves and in our role in the world, and when we go someplace new that might have different cultural values around different types of identities, all of that is a learning process, and I think that it's a really exciting one that has a lot of opportunity.

Justin: Awesome awesome. Well thank you so much Stephanie Roberts, and Chuck Eade from Denver University we really have enjoyed this time with you, and we are really looking forward to publishing this all out and thank you so much this has been appreciated.

Stephanie: Thank you so much Justin we appreciate the invitation.

Chuck: Yes thank you Justin we really appreciate it and I look forward to continuing collaborations.

Justin: And that concludes today's episode of Ripple Effects: travelers with disabilities abroad. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and letting your friends know you've done so by sharing. If you feel really positively about us, you might also consider leaving us a review on iTunes. All of those things will help us get the word out to more people.