Scaling the Greatest Walls

Two women (one is Hannah) look over their shoulders smiling. Great Wall of China is visible behind them.
Hannah (right) and a friend pause atop the Great Wall of China
How can you translate your campus' idealistic principles of inclusion to the global campus that is study abroad? Follow-up conversations with study abroad alumni with disabilities can put the realities more into perspective.

In this best practice, adapted from her post to the UC Davis Study Abroad blog, Program Coordinator & Advisor, Dana Armstrong, ponders this challenge while reflecting on her experience advising a student who is blind traveling to China.

China is a curious place.

It is a land of deep Confucian respect in the private sphere and a cutthroat, every-man-for-himself mentality on the street. It costs less to knock down an old building and rebuild it than it does to adequately maintain an existing one. It is a surreal hybrid of Communism in word and Capitalism in deed. China has crashed into the global scene providing opportunities of access and advancement for many — but not for all.

China, and the majority of Asia in general, is not a hospitable place for people with disabilities. Navigating Beijing in a wheelchair is a feat, for the stairs, cracks, and crowds make such a place downright inaccessible. Even as an able-bodied person, during a short visit to Beijing in 2013, it took every last bit of my courage to master the art form of crossing the street without getting killed.

So when Hannah Chadwick, a UC Davis International Relations and Chinese major showed up in my office at UC Davis Study Abroad with her seeing-eye dog to discuss the possibility of studying in China, lines of both concern and skepticism quickly spread across my face.

The UC Davis Principles of Community promote universal validation, access and acceptance to all individuals within the university, regardless of their identities. But translating these same idealistic campus principles to the global campus that is Study Abroad is an entirely different question altogether.

On one hand, we had the University’s mandate to promote access and inclusion. On the other, the University’s policies regarding health, safety and the responsibility for “reasonable accommodation.” We had safety concerns and logistical questions that stretched far into the horizon.

As a student advisor, I try to pull out the concerns and competencies of each student to place them in the program that is right for them.

But I came to see that Hannah was driven. She was very independent and competent. She knew what she wanted. She wanted to learn and explore her identity, her past and her future. And she was brave…braver than the average student that walks through my door.

First, Hannah was no stranger to China. She grew up in the rural Hunan province of China until the age of 13, when she moved to Humboldt, California. There, she thrived in her new home and support system. She became a citizen of the world, traveling to Canada for outdoor adventures, Mexico for a class service trip, Peru to visit friends, and even Bahrain for a short-term young leaders training event [through Mobility International USA].

She had even traveled back to China twice since relocating to the U.S. and discovered a world of new things along the way. Her lack of Mandarin language skills meant that, while she identified as Chinese, she still could not communicate with most people in her “home” country.

For these reasons, it is no surprise to find Hannah chose to pursue an International Relations and Chinese double major; cue the curtain that finds her in my office.

After several long appointments hashing out Hannah’s academic and personal goals, access concerns aside, we settled on an eight-week summer intensive language program at Beijing Normal University. I had hoped our search within the Chinese-speaking world would land us in Taipei, Hong Kong, or even Shanghai; somewhere that was at least a half-step down from Beijing on the chart of “chaotic cities.” But it was not to be.

We determined quickly that she could not take her dog. For many this would have been a road block, but Hannah quickly agreed to rely on her cane instead.

We determined we would need even more support from the Student Disability Center (SDC), since the universities in Beijing have no such office as part of their infrastructure. The translation procedure to me seemed dizzying — Chinese characters would have to be translated to Roman characters (PinYin), and these Roman characters into Braille. I thought this wall was insurmountable — but the SDC stepped up to the task.

Springtime came, and the visa process began; I shivered as I remembered my long day at the Chinese Embassy in San Francisco — the bureaucracy, confusion, and waiting to get that little sticker in my passport that unlocked the door to China. Hannah returned smiling; she had stayed with a friend in Berkeley, taken an Uber to the consulate, and reported no issues, adding that “everyone there was so nice and helpful!” I began to realize that this whole hectic endeavor just might be a success after all. June came, and she was off.

Coming Full Circle Following the Program

I had a lovely lunch with Hannah at Café Bernardo’s two weeks ago. “How did I feel getting on the plane?” she mused after I asked the initial question. “Not scared, really. I’d traveled before. I was just excited and not quite sure what to expect."

Upon walking off the plane, Hannah’s self-reliance, courage and five previous quarters of UC Davis Mandarin classes immediately proved indispensable.

“The program leaders were supposed to send someone to meet me, but no one approached me and I couldn’t find them. So I asked for assistance to the taxi line. I had printed out the maps and took a taxi to where I needed to go. I got there and found the program leaders all in a frenzy that they had already lost me — they had even called my mom in California and woken her up! And I was like, it’s okay you guys, I’m here! I can take care of myself!”

And so it began. The fierce independence Hannah possesses was the primary reason she survived Beijing — but it also proved to be her downfall during the first few days.

“I immediately realized I couldn’t navigate by myself, anywhere. I couldn’t walk alone on the campus or in the city. It was just impossible. Sidewalk vendors never sat in the same place twice so I could never know when to expect them. And the traffic is CRAZY! And I didn’t want to ask for help…I hate being that person, and I don’t want to bother anyone. I want to take care of myself just like everyone else. I was really surprised and discouraged.”

The next stage of Hannah’s adventure would become a lesson in humility. Having to ask someone if she could hold their arm when leaving the building was a frustrating and awkward thing to do, but another ingredient in her success were her excellent classmates. “None of them minded,” she recalled, “they were all really nice about it.”

But the first stretch of time in another country is never easy. As a Study Abroad Advisor, I see this systematic symptom of cultural adjustment in countless students; it had even cropped up in myself. I remembered the dark, bleak nights, shivering in Northern England on my third week of study abroad and asking myself, what had been so wrong with Davis that I had thought it necessary to go somewhere so far away? “I barely made it through that first week,” Hannah recalled. “I wanted to go home. I wanted to bail. I realized I had made a mistake and I couldn’t do it.”

As she recounted this over her dish of noodles, I flashed back on some of the email correspondences I had had with her that first week in June. They were heavy with frustration, discouragement, and hesitation.

“But your emails, and the support of a lot of others, helped me get through it. My Aunt sent me some tough love and told me 'You need to stick it out!' So I did!”

A fundamental part of Hannah’s adjustment week that contributed to her success was to work with UC and Beijing Normal University to secure her a guide to navigate Beijing.

As providence would have it, Hannah’s roommate, Ruby, turned out to be her closest friend and biggest advocate. Ruby is still in Beijing, having used the summer program as an intensive language preparation for a year immersing at the prestigious Peking University. “Ruby was already guiding me around, and she kept reassuring me she didn’t need money for it…but I wanted her to. I didn’t want to mix friendship and work. So it worked out really well that she could be my guide.”

“But, I mean, how was it?” I interjected. “What was it like to walk around Beijing? How were you treated?”

“We got a lot of stares,” remembered Hannah. I nodded, recalling the stares that I got in Beijing. Someone with white skin and blonde hair can be a magnet for eyes in many parts of Asia. Ruby was also tall and blonde, and with Hannah’s cane and holding her arm, I can only imagine the stares they would have received. “So we started waving at people, and that totally made it fun!”

Again, it was the little things Hannah did that turned perceived “negative” moments into “positive” ones.

To my surprise, Hannah reported that there weren’t too many negative instances with the Chinese public. On the whole, everyone was really nice.

“One time I tried to order tea,” she remembered. “I couldn’t say it right so the waitress looked to Ruby to translate. This was pretty funny because Ruby has white skin and blonde hair…most of the time in China, Chinese people look to the Asian-looking kids to translate, regardless of language ability, but this was kind of the other way around which was funny.”

I smiled, because this story could have come from any of our returnees to East Asia. It told me that maybe Hannah’s experience wasn’t so different than the average student’s experience after all.

“But I had to carry my cane around, and people thought that was weird. They didn’t know what it was for because they’d never seen one. One time I got on an elevator and someone asked, ‘Does it sing? Does it light up at night?’…I mean, it has reflective tape so I guess it sort of lights up. But I just acted like I didn’t speak enough Chinese to understand what they were saying.”

Hannah’s time in Beijing was a success thanks, in part, to Ruby. It was also thanks to the impressive efforts of the staff at the UC Davis Student Disabilities Center, and particularly staff member Sarah Cohen who tirelessly translated Hannah’s coursework. Every night as we slept, a heroic global correspondence took place to make Hannah’s education possible.

“We got my textbook only about a week or two before I had to leave” she recalled. “So Sarah translated most of it by the time I had to get on the plane, from characters to Pinyin so I could put it in my braille machine. But while in Beijing, we’d have quizzes, readings, different assignments… the SDC would work over email with my teachers in Beijing and myself and we’d email the materials to Sarah every evening. While I slept it was daytime here, so she would translate everything into pinyin and braille and I had it in my inbox the next morning by the time I went to class. She even worked on Sundays to make sure I had my required coursework on Monday.”

That, I thought, was the most impressive feat of communication to ensure a student’s success that I could have possibly imagined.

“The classes were fine, but most of my learning took place outside of the classroom, to be honest” she recalled. This is not uncommon for Study Abroad; it is precisely the development of these “soft skills” of intercultural communication, self-reliance, openness, flexibility and courage that make international adventure so worthwhile.

“I still have many friends there” she recalls. “I got to meet up with some friends from my previous trips to China. And then there were all those I met…Bill and Ruby and Lotus… and my tutor as well! All the students on the program have tutoring sessions with Chinese student tutors. Many afternoons, rather than just go over my Chinese homework, we’d go out into town and go shopping together. It was great for both of us and really fun. We still message all the time."

It is these international friendships that make Study Abroad last beyond simply the eight weeks and continue to transform a person long after they have touched back down on the runway at SFO.

“Coming back was hard,” she recalled. “I missed my friends. I slept a lot because jet lag was really brutal. And in China, you can just yell at a waiter to come to you; it’s just part of how restaurants work. But here you have to make eye contact, and it’s so hard when it’s busy, and I can’t do that anyway. So I have to wait so much longer for things.”

I sat back and reflected on these little societal cues, such as eye-catching, that have never been available to Hannah. Now that she’d brought them to my attention, I caught them everywhere. And yet…she can speak Mandarin, and I can’t. She had survived and thrived in eight weeks in Beijing, and I had barely survived a week. There were many things that she had done, and would continue to do, that I have not. Sight does not need to be an ingredient in the recipe for success.

Still, it does take a team. Staff members at UC Davis Study Abroad, the UC Davis Student Disabilities Center, the UC Systemwide Office of the Education Abroad Program, the UCEAP Study Center in Beijing, Beijing Normal University, and her classmates, friends and family all played varying roles of contributing to Hannah’s success.

But the only reason any of this worked was that the biggest contributor to Hannah’s success was herself. The phrase “you must be your own best advocate” has never been more true. Hannah’s confidence and spirit cleared the brush on a trail rarely, if ever, traveled. When combining that with courage, patience, and humility she has set a new precedent on what is possible.

“I want to go everywhere. I would even live abroad.” she told me over lunch. "I don’t know what my next steps are or what I want to do after college, but I know I want to keep travelling the world.”


Dana Armstrong