Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Extern Feature 2024: McKenna Wirth

Picture of a woman standing next to a dark brown horse in a mountainous area wearing a helmet, sunglasses, a patterned long-sleeve shirt, a black vest, gloves, and riding boots.
Picture of a woman standing next to a dark brown horse in a mountainous area wearing a helmet, sunglasses, a patterned long-sleeve shirt, a black vest, gloves, and riding boots.

McKenna Wirth is part of the 2024 cohort of the NCDE Access to Exchange Externship. She is developing a guide for individuals with celiac disease interested in visiting the breadbasket of the world, Eastern Europe.

Introduce yourself. Share information on your disability, and your academic/career interests.

I’m McKenna, a recent graduate with celiac disease and lifelong dreams of travel.  My passion for international exchanges began while reading National Geographic magazine as a young girl.  It solidified when working with international visitors at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in high school.  In college, I began studying Russian with the goal of using my language skills while studying abroad.  COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine put my plans on pause for most of my college career.  Just as Russian language exchange programs began looking possible, I was diagnosed with celiac disease and told I might never be able to travel.

Celiac disease is an auto-immune disease with only one treatment option: following a strict gluten-free diet for the rest of your life.  This includes avoiding foods that might have been cross-contaminated with gluten by shared dishes or trace amounts of gluten.  To manage this, I have to prepare almost all of my food in my own kitchen.  I can’t eat at most restaurants, can’t share food with others, and have to carry my own food with me whenever I travel.  Any gluten I eat damages my intestines and can lead to cancer, so cheat days aren’t an option.

 

Describe your international education experience.

In college, I desperately wanted to study abroad.  Unfortunately, I had five different programs canceled or moved online by the time I graduated, first due to COVID-19 and then due to the war in Ukraine.  Nevertheless, I persisted in finding a way to experience an in-person international exchange program.

I am currently finishing 10 months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.  I was drawn to Kyrgyzstan after completing the virtual Critical Language Scholarship Program in the summer of 2021.  As an ETA, I work with students at my host institution, Osh State University, and at the local American Corner.  Through my talking clubs, I teach English, share American culture, and answer questions about how to take advantage of international education programs like Fulbright.  I absolutely love connecting with my students and helping them achieve their dreams!

 

What was the biggest challenge that you encountered?

Central Asia is known as the bread basket of the world, so I knew that I would have to spend a lot of time and energy finding safe food for me to eat.  That has been my biggest challenge during my international exchange.  

In Kyrgyzstan, I have access to different foods than I do in the US.  Traditional foods are focused on carbohydrates, like bread and noodles.  While there is lots of fresh, organic, local produce available during the spring and fall, it’s very labor intensive to prepare.  My local grocery stores will often run out of staples like eggs or milk.  Luckily, I can often find gluten-free pasta and gluten-free soy sauce at a store in Osh.  I can also fly to the capital to buy additional gluten-free specialty products like flour mixes.

Adding to this, my dietary needs have changed more than I anticipated while living in Kyrgyzstan.  I’m a lot more active and working on a different schedule, so I have had to start eating a lot more protein.  That’s been difficult to achieve through my standard meals, so I also started using protein powder.

 

Describe your top three gains from your exchange experience.

I also knew that I would have a difficult time explaining my disability, because allergy awareness is not very common in this region.  I even have trouble in the US, as my medically-necessary diet is sometimes confused with a fad diet.  My explanations have also led to some wonderful conversations about other food allergies and dietary preferences, promoting mutual understanding.

To my surprise, everyone that I’ve met in Kyrgyzstan has been very considerate, if sometimes confused, by my dietary needs.  In Kyrgyz culture, bread is practically sacred and must never be thrown out, so I expected to be pressured to eat a lot more.  Once they understand that it’s a medical condition, they are eager to offer me safe alternatives like fruit or tea.  I’m a huge tea drinker, so this is pretty ideal for me.  I’ve also learned more about native plants through sharing tea with friends and coworkers here!

Instead of bonding over shared meals, I’ve found other ways to connect with my host community.  One of my main hobbies is horseback riding, which is central to Kyrgyz culture.  Instead of inviting my friends to meals, I’ve invited them to go horseback riding with me.  This led to an opportunity to play the Kyrgyz national game of kok boru, which is like polo but played with a dead goat.  My enthusiasm about horseback sports led to an interview with Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

 

Is there anything about your exchange experience that you would have done differently? 

When arriving in Kyrgyzstan, I tried to communicate my dietary requirements to my local counterpart.  However, it was difficult to get in contact with her, so my message was not passed on.  This made for an awkward “first meal” with my new coworkers in Osh.  I really enjoyed the tea that was served, though, and did my best to explain that I wasn’t upset, I just have to be very careful about what I eat.

Additionally, I would likely have brought significantly more protein bars and some protein powder from the US.  I also would have asked to be placed in the capital city of Kyrgyzstan.  Though I’ve loved living in Osh, there are a lot more gluten-free convenience foods available in Bishkek.

 

How did your disability impact or not impact your experience? Did you have to request any support, or take any steps to manage your disability while abroad?

Having celiac disease meant that mealtimes, a common way to connect with people, are awkward and uncomfortable to me.  This is particularly true in traditional Kyrgyz dining, where the first step is to literally break apart a large wheel of bread and share it with everyone.  Food comes up even in non-meal related activities.  One of the first questions I’m asked by new students is often what I think of their national food.  I’ve found that these questions are great opportunities to increase awareness of celiac disease and other allergies. Although I’m not having the traditional Kyrgyz dining experience, I’m still able to connect meaningfully with others.

Before arriving, I talked to the US Embassy in Bishkek, who provided me with a list of possible gluten-free stores and restaurants in Bishkek and Osh.  This was incredibly helpful.  It’s also part of the inspiration for my project.  I’m hoping that by sharing my story and identifying specific places to find allergen-free foods, I can help others with celiac disease take advantage of exchange programs.  Contrary to what I was told when I was diagnosed, it is possible to manage this condition without sacrificing your dreams of international exchanges!

The Access to Exchange Externship Is a Program of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. NCDE 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 all kinds of international exchanges between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA.

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