MIUSA: Tell us a bit about your exchange program.
Sam Lim: After graduating from the University of Washington, I moved to Berlin, Germany, for a year of research through the Fulbright Program, which is the largest international exchange program offered by the U.S. government. The program partners with over 155 countries, but Germany was the best match for me. My previous travels to Germany certainly prepared me by exposing me to German life before moving there. I also studied German in college, so I was fairly conversant by the time I moved to Berlin.
M: You mention traveling to Germany prior to your Fulbright year. What were some of your previous travel experiences?
SL: Some might say that traveling was part of my DNA. At six weeks old, I moved with my family from Singapore to the United States. Growing up, my dad traveled a lot for work, and as my sisters and I grew older, I developed my own keen sense of adventure.
My first international exchange experiences were in college, many of which were funded by my Gates Millennium Scholarship. I studied abroad in Berlin, Germany, for a month, and was pleasantly surprised to return less than a year later as a Humanity in Action Fellow for a five-week intensive international human rights program in Berlin. Later on, I studied abroad in Rome, and then in Athens. I also went to Guatemala for a week as part of a transnational task force, a part of my International Studies major.
M: How did you prepare for disability access abroad?
SL: My major concerns were medical, because my specialized treatment required specialized care. Working closely with Medtronic (the medical device company that had created my treatments), I identified good doctors and specialists to visit in Germany. I also worked closely with the German Fulbright Commission, since I was also concerned about medical insurance coverage.
Finally, I was also very fortunate to have the tremendous support of the ChairScholars Foundation, since they had funded me during my undergraduate years at the University of Washington. Without their support, my Fulbright would not have been possible.
M: What were some of the highlights and challenges of living abroad?
SL: Living in Germany was fantastic. I felt right at home with how punctually and efficiently everything ran. I had great friends and roommates with whom I could enjoy all that Berlin had to offer. Some of my favorite memories are grilling in the public parks in Berlin with “one-time” grills that only cost 2€ and enjoying the very affordable beer and snacks.
The challenges I faced were often based on language and sometimes also racial differences where I was discriminated against by folks on the street, in restaurants, or in stores. But, overall, my experiences were very positive, and I returned to the U.S. with many more amazing people I can now call friends. Local relationships are what made my study abroad programs as special as they were.
M: What was it like to be a visitor to Germany with a disability?
SL: My first year in Berlin I had crutches, and I was grateful to people on the street, on the bus, or on the subway who offered their seats for me. For most part, everyone I bumped into demonstrated a level of social consciousness that you don’t always find in the U.S.
Most people that learned of my physical challenges and the remarkable recovery I had made from spending six years in a wheelchair (and overcoming that after a nine-hour brain surgery) were extremely interested in how I had begun to walk again. These opportunities were great teachable moments to share with others how they might consider the needs of those who have disabilities that are perhaps less visible than others.
M: What is your advice for other people with disabilities who want to study or research abroad?
SL: First, doing your homework pays off. Know what treatments you might need and whether you can access them easily, regularly, or at a moment’s notice in that country. Find out whether you would be able to get covered by medical insurance.
Then find out what the program entails and identify any areas where you might face certain challenges other people may not. It’s critical to self-advocate, so that those who are running your program are well-aware that you may have needs others may not have.
“More often than not, they will be extra cautious, so it’s an opportunity to simply educate them on what your needs are, no matter how big or small.”
Finally, connect with others who might’ve gone through similar experiences. The opportunity to connect with people who’ve gone through it personally and ask questions as they come up is an invaluable resource. As a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador, I serve as a resource for people looking to apply for the Fulbright Program, and I can also share my experiences.
M: What are some ways in which your Fulbright year impacted you?
SL: I would not be in graduate school at Teachers College, Columbia University, had it not been for my Fulbright or any of my preceding international programs. They have all given me tremendous insights into how greater understanding among people from diverse backgrounds is truly at the core of how we can improve our communities in the 21st century.