Rebecca Zeigler Mano, EducationUSA Country Coordinator for Zimbabwe, has always worked to make higher education an option for many marginalized communities. She worked for a few years in the U.S. with high achieving, low income students to make sure they knew about access to higher education and scholarship opportunities. This thread continued when Rebecca started working with EducationUSA-Zimbabwe in 2000 and noticed little access for students with disabilities in local universities.
At the time the EducationUSA-Zimbabwe office had very limited educational services for advising on study or professional exchanges to the U.S., which Rebecca saw as an opportunity, rather than a constraint. She used the opportunity to build and shape the services in a way that was open to all students.
“Each student will have a different path. We start with a student’s dream and then bridge the gap between where students are and want to be.”
Rebecca took tangible steps to ensure that their advising centers and services were accessible and that people in the communities knew that international exchange was an opportunity for everyone. Practical arrangements and community partnerships were key in how Rebecca achieved these goals.
A few steps that Rebecca prepared within the EducationUSA-Zimbabwe office was to ensure accessibility to materials and information for students with all types of disabilities. The office had an accessible entrance and space, relationships with local sign language interpreters, accessible computer software for blind and low vision students, and access to other assistive technology to provide equal services to all students. She used EducationUSA opportunity grants to initially fund these tools.
The straightforward accommodations that Rebecca implemented at the EducationUSA advising centers also serve as an example to local educational institutions in Harare on how inclusion can be achieved.
Rebecca knew that effectively creating access requires more than making an office and services accessible. In a country where inclusion can be a challenge, she had to change perceptions so that international exchange is seen as an opportunity for everyone including people with all types of disabilities.
One of the critical steps Rebecca took was reaching out to schools, such as King George VI, a school for students with disabilities. Every year Rebecca contacts the school to make sure their students know about EducationUSA and the opportunity to study in the U.S. The school then connects ambitious students with disabilities to Rebecca, so she can support them along the way to achieve their educational goals.
EducationUSA-Zimbabwe also created a partnership with the U.K.’s Leonard Cheshire Disability organization to reach out to over 20,000 Zimbabweans with disabilities about access to education in the U.S. and the services of EducationUSA.
There have been many successful Zimbabweans with disabilities that have come to the U.S. for their studies, including four young African leaders awarded the Mandela Washington Fellowship (YALI).
Rebecca doesn’t want the relationship with students with disabilities to stop once they are accepted to a U.S. university. She nurtures those relationships, so they can serve as advocates and mentors for future leaders with disabilities in Zimbabwe. They return home to speak at EducationUSA fairs, educational events, and to serve on panels not only as a disability representative, but also as an expert in their field of study.
How will you make your office and services accessible for students with all types of disabilities? Read tips for recruiting people with disabilities in the Related Resources.
Update: Since we wrote this article, Rebecca has moved on from her job at EducationUSA to focus on opening educational opportunities for marginalized communities in Zimbabwe, including people with disabilities, with Education Matters and the United States Student Achievers Program (USAP).