Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Extern Feature 2024: Michael Saravia

A professional portrait of Michael wearing a suit and tie, standing outdoors and smiling.

Michael Saravia is part of the 2024 cohort of the NCDE Access to Exchange Externship. For his externship project, he implemented a webinar for Peruvians with disabilities interested in learning about exchange opportunities in the United States. Get to know Michael in our interview with him below!

Tell us about yourself! Share information on your disability and your academic/career interests.

I am Michael Saravia, a Peruvian public servant committed to building an equitable, inclusive, and barrierless society. I was born in Lima, studied management at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, and am a first-generation student. I have retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that has gradually degenerated my peripheral and especially central vision, but it has not been an obstacle in my personal, professional, or academic development. 

Regarding my professional background, I have experience in territorial management, local government management, public budgeting, and disability policy design. In the Peruvian public sector, I have served in the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Education, and the National Council for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities, where I designed the first national disability policy in Peru, an achievement that fills me with pride. Likewise, I have worked as a teaching assistant at my alma mater and as a researcher, recently publishing a study on the representation of disabled people in digital newspapers during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Describe your international education experience.

My international education experience so far has been amazing. First, I had the privilege of taking an intensive English program at the University of Arizona, where I not only improved my language skills and gained confidence but also met wonderful people from diverse cultures, especially my Fulbright fellows, who I hold dear to my heart. Now, I am pursuing my master’s degree at the University of Georgia (UGA). My experience at UGA has been wonderful; I am delighted with the friendliness of the people, the beautiful weather, the impressive campus, the quality of the professors, the accessibility conditions, and much more. Additionally, I feel fortunate to have been able to work in the UGA Department of Public Administration and Policy as a research assistant and currently as an intern at the UGA Disability Resource Center, experiences that further enrich my international experience.


What was the biggest challenge that you encountered?

There are some challenges related to my disability, such as limited public transportation off-campus, the lack of accessible traffic lights, and insufficient street lighting. However, I believe the greatest challenges I face are being away from my family and not being able to eat Peruvian food; these are the things I miss the most from my country. Fortunately, my wife is now living with me, which makes me feel more accompanied and happy.


Describe your top three gains from your exchange experience.

First of all, I consider it a privilege to be pursuing my master’s degree at one of the best schools of public administration in the United States. Undoubtedly, the knowledge and tools I am acquiring will be invaluable in my professional future. However, I would like to highlight three non-academic aspects that I have gained from this international experience so far. 

First, cultural enrichment. The opportunity to interact and exchange experiences with people from all over the world is invaluable, as it breaks down your stereotypes, broadens your perspective on things, makes you realize that nothing is entirely right or wrong, and motivates you to keep learning. 

Second, athletic development. When I was doing my undergraduate studies in Peru, I met a friend from Michigan who told me he played goalball. Since that moment in 2009, I had been eager to practice it. However, the lack of opportunities delayed that moment until I arrived in Athens, where I finally fulfilled that dream. Additionally, it has made me aware of how important sports are in the lives of people with disabilities, as it is a great means to develop interpersonal skills, belong to a community, and maintain physical and mental well-being. 

Finally, personal growth. I had never lived independently, and although I always told myself I could do it, I had never dared to try. Here, I have been forced to step out of my comfort zone and push myself to do things on my own, from doing the weekly shopping to cooking for myself.



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

I believe I wouldn’t do anything differently, as everything I’ve done so far has been valuable in this experience. The intensive program I took at the University of Arizona allowed me to improve my English, boost my self-confidence, and meet my fellow Fulbrighters. During the summer break of the program, I had the opportunity to travel to Miami and visit family members I hadn’t seen in a long time. I took advantage of that stay to visit Magic Kingdom, fulfilling one of my childhood dreams. After finishing the intensive English program, I had a memorable trip with my fellow Fulbrighters to the Grand Canyon, where we spent days that I will always remember fondly before each of us went our separate ways.


Later, I had to make a difficult decision when choosing the university for my master’s degree. The University of Georgia intimidated me because choosing it meant working as a research assistant. However, I took on the challenge, and now I’m in my second academic year. Not only did nothing bad happen, but things have gone extremely well for me. Moreover, I’ve met wonderful people whom I appreciate and who appreciate me. Here in Athens, I fulfilled another dream by being able to practice goalball and even compete in an interstate tournament with numerous visually empaired athletes. Finally, here in Athens, I’ve built a home with Leticia; we live on campus, in an environment surrounded by nature and tranquility that gives us peace. For all these reasons, I firmly believe that I wouldn’t change anything and that I made the best decisions in this experience.


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?

In general, my visual impairment has not affected my experience, as after so many years, I have learned to embrace it and recognize it as part of my identity. Additionally, I have been fortunate to meet very empathetic, friendly, and welcoming people who have been an important emotional support network during this process. And now, as I mentioned previously, I live with Leticia, my wife, which makes me feel even more accompanied, supported, and loved. However, I have requested some accommodations to be able to perform academically on an equal footing with my peers, such as paratransit service, extra time on my exams, and the use of my screen reader, among others.

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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