Ripple Effects 2.4: Full Access on a Fulbright Scholarship

Sergio with a rocky coastline in the background
Can you imagine a scholarship that focuses on networking and social justice issues? That was just one of the pleasant surprises that Sergio found on his Fulbright program at Boston University.

Episode Transcript

Justin: Support for Ripple Effects comes from the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, sponsor of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, and administered by Mobility International USA. To learn more go to

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I'm Justin Harford, Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA, bringing you a second season of Ripple Effects, travelers with disabilities abroad. This time, as part of our #Access2USA campaign, we bring you the stories of international students with disabilities studying in the United States. The goal is that more people will hear the stories and start to think about what is possible.

Justin: Sergio Medina, who is hard of hearing, has finished his Master's Degree in International Relations through Boston University with the support of the Fulbright Foreign Student Program sponsored by the US Department of State. We talked with him about his experience learning English with his disability, participating in American-style class discussions and representing his home country, Spain, as a Fulbright grantee.

Justin: Hey Sergio. How are you?

Sergio: Hi how are you?

Justin: I'm all right. Thanks for joining us.

Justin: Sergio why don't you tell us about yourself. Where you are from… Your program of study.

Sergio: Well yes thank you. My name is Sergio. I'm from Spain. I studied a Masters Program in International Relations from Boston University from 2014 to 2016.

Justin: And what inspired you to go on in that particular major?

Sergio: Well I started with Political Science and I really like International Relations. I'M really into international organizations and how the world works. I mean how different nations can make a set of rules to work altogether in some matters such as for example human rights.

Justin: Why don't you tell us about your experience with disability Sergio.

Sergio: Yes I, my  disability consists of hearing impairments, so and it's corrected with hearing aids. But sometimes I have some problems hearing the higher frequencies, so with some voices I have problems understanding them. And this is especially challenging when you are speaking a second language, because it's not the same when you already know all of the words or all the pronunciations in one language and sometimes it's a bit troubling.

Justin: Sometimes it's, sometimes it's tough are you saying like when you're learning a new language?

Sergio: Exactly yes.

Justin: How did you find out about the Fulbright?

Sergio: When I was studying political science in Spain, a friend of mine told me about this program. They have this scholarship so you can study abroad in the United States, and the Department of State will pay for your expenses and for part of the price of the program. So, a friend of mine told me about that. I went to ask to the center of the Fulbright foundation in Madrid and they told me to apply, how will be the process and so on.

Justin: Yes it’s a really prestigious opportunity. And what ultimately motivated you to apply after you found out about this opportunity?

Sergio: Well I had a major in International Relations and I think the United States plays a very very very important role in the International Relations system. So I wanted to live this experience and to get to know better the American culture, so I can better understand how the international dynamics work, but especially because the American system, educational system in America is one of the best in the world. So it would be a great opportunity.

Justin: Why don't you tell us about your Fulbright Program.

Sergio: Well the Fulbright Program is depending of the Department of State. It's a program for foreign people to study in the United States and for people from the US to study abroad. So the idea or the motivation of this program is better understanding of the cultures, which is pretty much what I try to compel in the study of the International Relations. So that's the goal of the program. They basically give you support and fund you to get an education, and then they pay a part or the total of your tuition and give you a monthly stipend so you can live there if you have any costs.

Justin: So it sounds like they pretty much cover everything is there anything that you had to cover apart from that?

Sergio: Well in my case it was not the total cost of the tuition, but it depends on the bilateral agreement that it has with each country the Department of State.

Justin: So how did you make up that last part?

Sergio: Well I have some savings, and I could apply and did for a reduction in my tuition in my university, but I didn't get it, so I had to pay for it. I have some savings from my previous work experience, and I had to spend that.

Justin: You had to spend that?

Sergio: MM HMM

Justin: Well spent maybe.

Sergio: It wasn't much because most of the cost of the tuition was paid by the Fulbright Program.

Justin: And what steps did you have to take in order to apply to get into the Fulbright Program?

Sergio: The first thing I had to do was prepare my TOEFL examination. The TOEFL is a test for English as a second language, and you have to have at least a good score like 100 out of 120 for entering some of the best universities in the US. So the Fulbright Program asks for that score, 100 out of 120. That was the first step that I have to take to get the scholarship. After that you have to pass, well you have to send your CV, or resume, and they have to accept you. Then you have an interview. This interview is made by former Fulbrighters that will see if you fit into the expectatives of the program. And after that you are into the program.

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Justin: Are you an international student with a disability who has studied or who is studying in the United States? #Access2USA needs you. Learn more about how you can join the #Access2USA campaign. Tell us your story, and share your insights. @Mobilityintl on twitter, mobility international USA on Facebook and for our website.

Justin: After you went through all the steps and you finally got to the United States, what was it like adjusting?

Sergio: It was a bit weird at the beginning. Sometimes you think you know a culture because of the movies, the books, the TV shows. And when you are actually there you are immersed within this culture and you notice that it's not exactly like that. You know? For example, for foreign people getting some jokes that are referential jokes I don't know, I remember talking with a Russian friend that who loved to make jokes about the Kardashians. And we may not know who are the Kardashians, well I do know because I had no other option, but you know some foreign people don't know about these referential jokes that are so popular in the United States. But in general I have to say that I am really happy because I found that people in the US is usually very opened and very comforting very easy-going. So I didn't have any problem.

Justin: Why should students especially students with disabilities. Consider applying for the Fulbright?

Sergio: Well besides the obvious reason that the American educational system is one of the best in the world and you can get to study in universities like Harvard or Stanford, I think that this program can make a very easy transition between countries you know. This is the foundation that both help people from other countries to integrate into the American system, and you will get a lot of contacts and a lot of people who are also in this program. You will never feel alone, and that’s something very important especially when you have a disability and you want to talk about it, or you need help. The more people you know, and the more people you can get help from, the better. This is the transition between your country and a foreign country.

Justin: what  would be your advice for people with disabilities from other countries who are thinking about studying in the United States?

Sergio: Well I would say don't be afraid because actually people with disabilities are widely accepted. In the United States is not like other countries. For European people, it could be more common, but maybe for other people from other countries they may think that because if they have a disability is maybe more I don't know harder.

Justin: Might be less support maybe.

Sergio: Exactly or less supporting. But I would say go for it. Go for it and try it because usually when you  asked for help you will get help.

Justin: The key is asking isn't it though.

Sergio: Yes always because for example if the professor don't know he or she doesn't know that you have a problem a speech impediment or a hearing trouble, or whatever you have, she or he cannot help you. And I have to say that one thing that I have found really challenging in my classes there was that most of the culture was discussion in class and I'm not used to that. And a lot of cultures actually don't discuss with much in class. They are usually more a lecture from the professor, but not in the American educational system. They are more discussion oriented. So you have to be more opened and more proactive in class.

Justin: What was it… how did you kind of ultimately adjust to that new change?

Sergio: Well with time. With a lot of time. At first I wasn't very speaking. I didn't want to speak very much in class. Because I was afraid of my accent, because I couldn't understand some words or some expressions or just I couldn't hear properly the professor or other students, but with time I mean we were always the same students so other students when they were addressing me they would speak louder, or they would repeat if I wouldn't understand and it was easier to discuss some ideas with them in class.

Justin: And I wanted to know, a lot of people with disabilities worry about when they come to other countries. What kinds of supports, accommodations are there. And I wanted to know what was your experience like getting accommodations for your disabilities.

Sergio: Actually it was pretty easy. I mean when I arrived to Boston University, I asked for my counselor and I told him about my problem, my disability that I have hearing trouble. So I would have a written need. I mean if I ask for a seat that is closer to my professors so I can hear better I would get that. Or if I asked for hours after class with my professor because I couldn’t understand something he or she was explaining in class, I will get that. So they were pretty understanding with that.

Justin: And could you tell us about some highlights of your experience with the Fulbright Program and studying in the United States?

Sergio: Yes of course. Well, for starters, as I said, I had a lot of people that I get to know, because of this, because Fulbright focuses a lot of networking. So you meet a lot of people. For example, in Massachusetts, we used to meet every last Friday of the month and we would meet in a bar you know to know each other. People who are American who have studied in other countries or people from other countries who were studying in America. Also, for example, Fulbright focuses on several social groups. For example, in my case it was people with disabilities. We had a convention when the ADA turned 25 last year in 2015. So we all went to San Francisco to meet Victor Pineda from WorldEnabled, and having him advocate for people with disabilities. We met these people. I don’t know this is of another scholarships for the programs don’t focus on. Social issues and get to meet other people with similar interests.

Justin: Awesome and the last question that we are going to ask you is could you share us your Ripple Effect, and your ripple effect for the purposes of this podcast could be an encouraging message, a key piece of advice, something you want people to take away from this podcast.

Sergio: Well I would say that first of all look into the funding. If you can get on a scholarship, go for it. Don't think about that. Just go for it, because it may be the best experience in your life.

Justin: Awesome. Thank you so much Sergio we really appreciate it.

Sergio: Well I'm very glad to have this opportunity to get my message to other people.

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Justin: I'm Justin Harford, and thank you for listening to ripple effects. Visit to learn more about mobility international USA and our mission to advance disability rights and leadership globally, and to share with us your Ripple Effect.

The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange 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 international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA