Ripple Effects 4.1: Disabled People Are Diverse and Diversity Is Key

A group of a dozen young people, including men and women of color, a student seated in a wheelchair, and a blind person with a service dog at her feet. Together, they gather in an outdoor urban setting.
Photo courtesy of IIE

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Justin Harford: Ripple effects comes to you from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA

Trixie Córdoba: That to me has been really what is rewarding, is working directly with students to see the shift in how they see themselves in this experience where perhaps for a really long time they never did. 

Justin: When we think about international exchange, our minds tend to settle on institutions and organizations that directly provide programs overseas. However there are other kinds of organizations in the field which are focused on inclusion and diversity in international exchange. The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange  is one of those, but there are others which like us, work to fill the information gaps so that students from a variety of backgrounds can study or volunteer abroad. On this episode of Ripple effects, I got to meet a couple colleagues whose main occupation is increasing the participation of diverse students in international exchange by providing information, resources and trainings. 

Justin: Today we are here with Juanita Lillie and Trixie Córdoba from Abroad With Disabilities and diversity abroad, respectively. they are here to talk with  us about themselves and what they do in this business that we call international exchange. I'm really happy to have you  both here today because when we think about international exchange we are familiar with study abroad organizations and what they do. I know we talked about third-party providers in a previous episode. But I don't know how many people realize that there are organizations out there like diversity abroad, like mobility international, like Abroad With Disabilities whose purpose is to work with those other organizations  to include more diverse participants on their programs. I think what I would like to do first is to give people an idea what exactly it is that we are talking about. I wonder if you could  open up and share a little about what it is that you  do for a living every day.

Trixie: Sure yes I can start. Sure hi everyone. My name is Trixie Córdoba. I am the Associate Director of student services at Diversity Abroad. Diversity Abroad is an organization that was founded in 2006 and the goal and the mission of Diversity Abroad is to ensure that students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds can have access to and thrive in the 21st century global, connected world. We really want students to get that through global opportunities whether that is studying abroad, interning, working overseas, any kind of global opportunities. It's something that we really find value in. We think it's really a high-impact experience. And there aren't enough students who have access to that or who are familiar with it and take advantage of it while they are in higher education. But of course that opportunity exists when they are in high school or after you graduate. Really our goal as an org is to see more students have access to this experience.

Justin: There are a lot of studies that show that it gives quite an advantage to people who do it in employment and in other areas.

Trixie: Yes and we are looking at even the traditional trajectory of who has had access to higher education in the United States. That has evolved as has who is enrolling in college and who is graduating with advanced degrees, as those trends in the population that we have served in those institutions have become increasingly more diverse. Study abroad statistics are not quite catching up to that same representation. We really want to just make sure that it's equitable. That the same percentage of diverse and underrepresented students in higher education is reflected in who participates in study abroad. And if that means having to dispel the myths about how much it costs, who it's for, what kind of majors it makes sense for, why it's important. We do our work by creating resources for students as well as resources for the professionals supporting those students so that we can start to see some of those numbers change.

Justin: That makes sense and with the advantages that those programs give people who participate it's kind of like college... how it was before. You want to make sure that people are getting access to these opportunities otherwise inequality will be exacerbated.

Trixie: Exactly .

Justin: When you talk about sharing resources I think that people are always trying to figure out exactly what it is that we do at the clearinghouse. That's one of the big things is developing resources and connecting with professionals in the field. I think let's move on to Juanita. Juanita why don't you tell us about Abroad With Disabilities. What is your focus. How would you describe your organization?  that you are also the founder right? Maybe you could also comment a little about what inspired you in that direction.

Juanita: Absolutely. My name is Juanita Lillie. I am the founder of Abroad With Disabilities. The full purpose of Abroad With Disabilities initially, and it still is, is to encourage dialogue relevant to going abroad with a disability. I am a person who identifies with having a disability. I went abroad and it was very challenging to find resources, to find connections to learn about the different methods and strategies and ways to go abroad with a disability. So I thought what else is there to do. So during my undergraduate career path, I took an independent study course at grand Valley State University, and I was able to connect with MIUSA. I was able to ask why reinvent the wheel. When I was able to connect with MIUSA I had great support, I was able to learn, and they really supported me in the process. To this day we connect with each other, and so our purpose is really to encourage dialogue. We want people to ask questions. We want people to discuss topics. We want people to learn from one another. And more recently, and never would I have ever expected to do such a thing like this… I was originally going into medical interpreting, but once I found a passion and the opportunity to educate and empower more persons with disabilities to go abroad, that's when I found it Abroad With Disabilities as a Michigan nonprofit. I would've never been able to do this without the support of my team, without connecting with other professionals in the field of international education. So today we really work with students. We encourage dialogue, share resources, and we will do trainings.  Whether it is training for professionals, weekend seminars for students. Whether it is may be a seminar for a specific identity within disability, or maybe a seminar for a variety of disabilities or impairments or conditions. Whether it is maybe just for high schoolers, because I agree Trixie said going abroad is an opportunity for anyone. We worked with folks as young as middle school. And just going up all the way to going on that cruise ship wherever it is for senior citizens or going to volunteer. So I agree with Trixie. It is more the study abroad. And I'm not saying study abroad is not going abroad. It is. I studied abroad. I've gone abroad. I absolutely adored it. That's where I want to help and support other individuals and professionals to empower more persons with disabilities to go abroad.

Justin: And it’s not just about disability. There are many reasons why someone might be underrepresented or at a disadvantage in international exchange whether it’s being first- generation, ethnic minority, LGBTQ or low income.

Juanita: Yes I absolutely agree with that. Looking at other identities. I'm going to be honest. I've told people in the past when advising folks, it's very important in my opinion to embrace your identities including disability. When I studied abroad for the first time, it's not the fact that I didn't embrace my identities it is the fact that I was so focused on my primary disability of blindness… How will I navigate? How will I get these materials in accessible formats? How will I communicate in a second language? As you have mentioned Justin it is also looking at those other identities. I am a person of color. I'm a woman. I am a first generation student, and never ever did I look at that because there are so many opportunities out there considering those identities, and that's my favorite part of advising because we often times we get people with disabilities who contact Abroad With Disabilities, and they want to go abroad but the first thing they bring up, which I think is reasonable I understand, is disability. How will we make things accessible. How will we accommodate things. I also remind them and I tell my story. I think it's great that you are talking about disabilities but it's also important to connect with these other organizations such as diversity abroad, such as different MIGS (Member Interest Groups) at NAFSA or education abroad whatever they are doing because those identities are also part of you and you are what's going to make that abroad experience a reality.

Justin: That's a really great insight. I can totally relate to your story Juanita having had the experience of going overseas with a disability and having related to some of those struggles… I can see how you got into that. I wonder Trixie if you could share what is your story? How did you discover this field and get interested in the world of increasing diversity in study abroad?

Trixie: Yes I'm happy to. I studied abroad as a college student. I went to UC Berkeley. As you both discussed and I personally identify with, there are a lot of ways in which I was sort of the kind of underrepresented student that I try to seek out and provide resources for today. I was first generation college student. My parents are immigrants from the Philippines. We didn't grow up with a lot of financial resources. So in many ways on paper I don't think I fit the trajectory or even the look of who has traditionally access global opportunities.

Justin: It's usually associated with wealthy white women going abroad right?

Trixie: Yes and that's the majority population to this day that is going overseas. And certainly that's not to say that at diversity abroad we don't provide resources or explore ways to further support those students as well. It's a matter of creating equitable opportunities right? So I think going overseas was transformational as obviously all of us on this podcast can attest to. I think that it pushes you to consider more deeply how you identify yourself, how you see the world how the world sees you, your relationship to culture and social issues in politics and economics. I think from that experience on it really challenged me to be more independent and self-reliant. I will share this anecdote. Shortly after study abroad I went and signed up to run a marathon. I had never run anything in my life. I think the motivation for that was really that I came back with this attitude of I can do it. I can do anything. I may have been really afraid. It was my first time traveling overseas, and there are many reasons why like my students I was scared and afraid that I couldn't thrive. I had this negative stereotype that if something happened I would be dead in a ditch. That didn't happen right. I made it out and not only did I make it out I thrived and was able to navigate new terrain and to do so with a lot of confidence. So I would say that experience is really what drove my initial interest and since then I have really made it a point to find ways to continue learning overseas and having experiences overseas. I traveled to Japan shortly after graduating. I taught English over there for about two years before I got my Masters degree in this work. I think those experiences combined along with my own personal willingness to continue serving other students with whom I self identify who find themselves in the minority whether that is related to their ethnicity, their gender, their socioeconomic status. A lot of the work that I have personally always been involved with has been focused on how can we create this more equitable learning experience.

Justin: What do you think is the biggest challenge for the student that you identify with including yourself if you want to share about that. What has the biggest challenge been for you in the field of study abroad that you are working every day to end or to reduce?

Trixie: Yes. I think a lot of it. There are a lot of different barriers. Johnnetta cole who was a leader in international education as President of  Spelman College, in 1991 she delivered a speech where she talks about the 4 Fs. The four Fs being some of the overarching barriers for students particularly from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. Those 4 Fs are finances, faculty, family and fear. I would say overarchingly those themes do recur when you hear the students say it's too expensive, when you hear students say I can't leave my family behind, when you hear students say I have never been on a plane, I don't know what I'm going to be perceived as are treated like when I go abroad. I think they  all fit nicely into one of those different Fs. I think we can sit here and say that a lot of it is because there isn't exposure. You are more likely to go abroad if you have friends or family who have had that direct experience that you can talk to, and truly when the numbers show that those students aren't going abroad it's representative of who we can go to for support. I would say one of those four Fs might be the largest culprit, and ultimately what our work at Diversity Abroad, at MIUSA, as well and at Abroad With Disabilities I think try to do is to say that despite some of these reasons that you might think that you are incapable or that you are not a good fit, you can do it and we actually can show you and introduce you to other students who can relate to your own experience who have made it possible.

Juanita: I agree. I absolutely agree…

Justin: Mentorship is such a big deal. I have reflected a lot since then on the reasons why I did what I did… studying abroad for a year in Chile and a summer in Mexico. I had a mentor, who was a woman with a visual impairment who always told me that I needed to study abroad. She had studied abroad for a year in Paris. She said you couldn't go to college without it. I totally relate to that account that you  both are sharing how the experience of meeting someone else who has done it who is like you… How that can influence your trajectory. Sorry Juanita I interrupted you what were you going to say…

 Juanita: I agree with both of you. Going off of what Trixie was saying about these organizations such as miusa, such as Diversity Abroad, such as Abroad With Disabilities is really supporting folks to go abroad. I think that is something that folks who are wishing to go abroad or folks who maybe encounter a barrier or maybe identify something new in their lives or whatever it may be is that yes it's about independence, but I also believe personally that it's important to know that it's about interdependence. If it wasn't about interdependence, I feel that organizations such as miusa such as Diversity Abroad such as Abroad With Disabilities would not be existing. We want to see individuals go abroad. We are there to support individuals. Those opportunities can be, I believe, fulfilled with the support of others, with the resources, and even walking people through it. I have gone through it in some advising sessions where some people are like "OH I didn't realize I was a first-generation student or I didn't realize about my ethnicity or my race or I never thought of religion." So really even talking through it is powerful as well.

Justin: Would you say one of those is your favorite part of what you do Juanita as far as your work. You do a lot of stuff and what would you say is the thing that you're most proud of or the most enthusiastic about?

Juanita: I love talking. I really love talking. I know you would've never guessed!

Justin: *laughs*no really? I would've never guessed.

Juanita: I would say one of the opportunities,  though it might be frustrating, I mentioned I'm a person with a disability and my primary  disability is blindness. There are moments where I will be working with professionals in international education, work with graduate students, work with undergraduate students work with study abroad students who ever they may be, is having them recognize "oh these are the barriers." I may have an attitudinal barrier with some folks, but I believe that it's not out of "oh let's give Juanita an attitude today," no I think it's just that people aren't aware, therefore what resources are there available. What can I do? What can you do as an individual to increase access, and those are my favorite opportunities, raising the barrier and talking about what are the different ways. We often times do courses or trainings or talks on universal design, and universal design for learning and experiential learning. So basically what are the strategies that you as a professional, you as a peer, you as a parent could do to support the needs or accommodate or make things more proactively accessible through the experience. My favorite things are really talking to students, having them discover themselves, having them believe and show what they can do. I was working with someone recently, they contacted us and were saying oh I don't know if I can go abroad. Now they went abroad and now they are going abroad for another two years. You have gone abroad more than I have now! But really just talking with people and supporting people through the process. Do not get me wrong, there is really a shift of frame of reference, and thinking about okay here are the possible barriers, okay there is a barrier what do I do about it.  Often times I have had it in my experience that the barrier may not be overcome or accommodated at the moment, but many people in organizations have taken steps to be more proactive in making things more accessible.

Justin: Yes yes. And you just touched on my favorite part which is bringing people together. Trixie what about you? What is your favorite part or what gives you energy to get up in the morning and inhale the lovely breezes of San Francisco and go to do the work that you do?

Trixie: Yes it's cold the San Francisco air for sure. I think what I really appreciate is I think when you are in the field of international education particularly if you have been in the field for some time, you start to develop your own awareness of how much people might be familiar with the field and the industry as a whole, and yet when I go on the road, we have some thing on the student services side called the passport tour, where we traveled to colleges around the United States to try and encourage diverse students to go abroad. We don't run our own program so much as saying "here are reasons why you should do it here are the resources on your own campus, here are scholarships that you should know about," and I think what has really energized me particularly during that tour is seeing, when you are communicating to students and you see the wheels really start to turn in their head. So they might hit you with some of those frequently answered responses… it's expensive, I don't have time, it's not relevant, I've never been on a plane. 

Justin: My credits don't work.

Trixie: Yes. One of my favorites is "I've seen Taken." You get those kinds of responses that are frequent. You completely empathize and understand where they're coming from, but as you start to introduce resources, as you start talking them through the feasibility of it, and the planning that goes into it, sometimes you start to see the energy and the frame of mind shift, and it has been rewarding for me to hear students follow up and say "I'm really glad you talked about that I might really look into this now." Or "I thought study abroad was going to a foreign country for a whole year, and I didn't think it could be a seven day or 10 day trip," which makes much more sense in terms of my responsibilities at home and the cost." So I think... that to me has been really what is rewarding, is working directly with students to see the shift in how they see themselves in this experience where perhaps for a really long time they never did. 

Justin: That's amazing. Yes… Opening peoples' minds up to the world that is what we do. To the possibilities…

Juanita: Yes I always tell people these of my three favorite words… Communication, collaboration and honesty. I get to do that with everyone. Whether they ever professional, whether they are a parent, whether they are a peer or support person in the student or gap year person's life, is communication. I will be honest with you. If I don't know something I'm going to tell you. I'm going to find resources, I'm going to find organizations. I'm going to really try and collaborate and try to make this opportunity the best. That is where I found again open communication, the willingness to collaborate and be honest with people. That brings people together which I absolutely adore.

Justin: Exactly and with that, ladies,  I really appreciate your time. Diversity Abroad and Abroad With Disabilities look them up. We will have links to the organizations in the show notes, and I really appreciate you thoughts  and I  am tremendously optimistic that our viewers or listeners are going to have a better concept now about some of the amazing and interesting things going on out there in the world of international exchange. With that Trixie, with that Juanita thank you so much and have a great rest of your evening.

Juanita: Thank you for inviting us.

Trixie: Yes thank you bye take care.

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.