Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Ripple Effects 3.1: A #LifeAfterExchange of Language Study

Stacy smiling in circle with group of 3 men, who are wheelchair riders, in front of an accessible van.
Stacy smiling in circle with group of 3 men, who are wheelchair riders, in front of an accessible van.

Studying a language while on international exchange can introduce you to new people.

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Justin Harford: Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities abroad, brought to you by the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, a project sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational And Cultural Affairs and administered by Mobility International USA

We know that international exchange  contributes to personal  and professional development. It can enhance one’s confidence and skill sets, broaden one’s perspective and shape one’s  educational path. It can also influence job choices and employment opportunities. Let’s find out how. For this season of Ripple Effects, we will hear stories from international exchange alumni with disabilities and how their programs relate to their careers. This is part of a new initiative from the clearinghouse called, #LifeAfterExchange.

I’m Justin Harford, a Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA and your host for Ripple Effects.

Spending a high school year abroad with Youth for Understanding in Germany, Stacy Mayfield learned what it means to struggle to express herself using the right words. Now, 20 years and four languages later, she has dedicated her career connecting with others through language and enabling them to express themselves.

Justin Harford (JH): Stacy I’m glad you could be with us here today and we just wanted to get your perspective. You have an interesting career and you have had a lot of opportunities to communicate with interesting people and it all started with your international exchange. I wonder if you could start by just sharing about that with us.

Stacy Mayfield (SM): Sure. The first thing that you should know is I have cerebral palsy. I didn’t really think that was a big deal until I learned that I was one of the first wheelchair users to sign up for an 11 month exchange with Youth for Understanding and let’s see in 1996. So over 20 years ago. When I was 16. I grew up and lived in a small town for most of my childhood and teenage years and I was ready to get out and see the world and meet new people. My parents were really encouraging, and so with support from them I left a small college town of Kirksville Missouri population around 15 to 17,000 people and landed in Berlin Germany with population about 4 million people. So it was a bit of a shock. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know anybody. So for the first time in my life really I was independent. So it was great and overwhelming sometimes deliciously so… The smell of curry still reminds me of the food carts in Berlin because I can still smell it around DC occasionally.

JH: You’re in Manassas, Virginia right?

SM: Yes I live in Manassas. I work in Chantilly Virginia. At a place called Driver Rehabilitation Center of Excellence which actually works with people with disabilities.

JH: One of the interesting things that I like about your story… You always hear in an exchange story… “I went to Europe… France Germany and it was wonderful and rah, rah, rah.” but your story in Berlin actually has some challenging parts to it as well… with your appendix… with your host family… Why don’t you tell us about that?

SM: Yes so challenges kind of came hand-in-hand with the independents. With transportation for example, I was now free to pretty much explore wherever I wanted. My small town didn’t really have public transit. But that also meant that I had to deal with Metro stations and sometimes it didn’t have elevators. So I remember once I tried to ride piggyback on a fellow exchange student down an escalator. I fell, got a concussion and a really expensive emergency room bill, so I quickly learned which places were more easily accessible and sort of made my way in the city based on elevators. My host family… I ended up with two host families. My first host family didn’t really understand what it would be like to host a teenager with a disability. They had two preteen daughters that needed a lot of care and attention. I don’t think they really got it that I need a little extra help at times. They told me all of this while I was in the hospital

JH: This was a different time in the hospital…

SM: Yes this was a different time in the hospital. After the ER bill after the concussion… I ended up in November 1996 I remember exactly when it was… My appendix burst right around the time that they said I’m sorry but you can’t really live with us anymore we don’t really know how to deal with the disability. So, about the time that I had (inaudible) in the hospital, they told me this and luckily my wonderful teacher at the high school that I was going to let everyone know in school that I was looking for a new family, and one of those people that… Really heeded the call was the person who would become my host brother Marcus. Who also has cerebral palsy… A little milder than myself. I’m a wheelchair user but he was able to walk with a cane. He understood… Obviously understood about accessibility. He also was an exchange student to America about three years before…so in 93. He asked his parents if I could come stay with them for… At that point it was about six to seven months. … Not only did they say yes but they gave up their bedroom and slept on an air mattress for six or seven months in the living room while I took the bedroom. So, they were really amazing and so I really wouldn’t have traded all the hardship because I wouldn’t have met them and I wouldn’t have gotten to know them and love them.

JH: That’s really awesome and so it sounds like it really could’ve been a negative experience, but it turned into a great opportunity for disability exchange and just meeting a teriffic host family that you still keep in touch with today.

SM: It really is true through technology I found them again on Facebook.

JH: Nice

SM: We still keep in touch…

JH: It seems like the listeners might think when I mention that these challenging things happened, they would wonder “why would you want that to happen?” When I was in Chile… I had a lot of challenges related to books, related to getting around and working with people. Once I was told that I could not go into a venue to listen to a concert because I was blind, but you know those experiences are what really give us a chance to grow.

SM: Well my response to the “you’re blind” well yes but your ears still work… Yes so that seems to make sense to me yes… But the challenges really I think for me especially like I said earlier… It was the first time that I had really been independent, and it gave me a chance to really flex my creative problem-solving muscles. I hadn’t really done as much before in the US, so for me it was really positive and shaped who I ended up becoming as an adult.

JH: And also it sounds like there you had a lot of amazing experiences too with German… Like you said you came and you couldn’t speak German. What was that like getting to a country where you couldn’t communicate with people what you wanted to say and then having to figure out this new language really quickly?

SM: Ummm… It came with some challenges. At first when I got there the exchange program had basically a class for beginners who didn’t speak any German. We were all grouped together all the exchange students, and within the first few weeks I basically lost my keys to the apartment of my host family… In my house apartment and I missed the group bus to that class. I only knew a few words at that point in German and I kept saying I didn’t have my “bowl” instead of that I didn’t have my “key.” There was a one letter difference between bowl and key, and they basically sounded like the same words. So it was really challenging. I also tried to make small talk about the weather with some German guys when I was waiting at a crosswalk one day. I was really proud of myself. I just learned these new words… And instead of talking about the weather I ended up hitting on them.

JH: You told them that you were hot instead of that the weather was hot!

SM: Pretty much. I’m not sure that they agreed with me but I did learn very quickly about German grammar after that. So again it was a learning experience.

JH: I could imagine. And so you brought those learning experiences with you as you got back from Germany… Continuing in high school in Mississippi and then going on to college. What was kind of your professional/academic trajectory after that. In terms of just the interesting career that you have had getting to communicate with interesting people by literally learning their languages.

SM: Sure… So it actually started… I started at the University Of Central Florida in Orlando in 98. I ended up majoring in Public Relations and minoring in German. Big shock right! I had wanted to minor in German because it allowed me to stay close to my experience and it kept my host family close to my heart. So I really wanted to take that with me… As far as I could take it. So I ended up majoring in Public Relations because I wanted to change the world. I’m kind of an idealist. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now… Helping people. But soon after graduation in 2001 I ended up working for a nonprofit that directed people to community resources, and during my first day on the job I used both Spanish and German to communicate with people and as you mentioned it sort of started the pattern of communicating to help others and helping others to communicate. In 2004, I switched into helping others communicate and getting a Masters in Speech Pathology again at UCF… University of Central Florida. [“1] Part of it was that I knew what the frustration felt like when you knew what you wanted to say but you couldn’t, because that was basically me during my first few months in Berlin. I knew in English what I wanted to say but could not say it in German. So it was very frustrating. And so I wanted to help kids express themselves. I focused more on school-based speech pathology, and during that time I met Daniel… My future husband… I met him online. Yes… We were both living in Orlando but not going to the same schools. We were friends for a year… We dated for a year and then in 2007 he asked me to follow him to a new job in Maryland that he had, and I took a risk and I did. I followed him to Maryland and stayed there for a year before we changed jobs again, and so it was a pattern. We ended up in Seattle in 2008, and I had to get another Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education.. And then in… Let’s see I’m trying to think of all the things that I’ve done…. The reason that I wanted to do early childhood was because I wanted to help kids express themselves. But in a different way. I was really fortunate to live and teach in larger urban areas… Maryland… DC… Seattle… There were so many areas where there were so many cultures and languages… And yes it was really… Great.

JH: Like you were telling us too that that must’ve made it interesting… I remember you mentioned to me that you worked at a preschool or daycare and they were a lot of parents from different backgrounds there that you got to work with?

SM: Yes. In Seattle, I worked at a preschool for refugee families that had just arrived to the US. And I learned some of the family languages in order to… 1. to communicate with parents and 2. to kind of give children comfort, because here they are probably staying in a new strange place… And the least I could do was give them a word or 2 that they recognized. I once learned some pieces of an endangered oral language that had no written component whatsoever. So that was definitely… my biggest challenge as far as learning a language, but Lots of hand gestures and drawings and things…

Pictionary international. And you know I’ve done that in other jobs as well. In my current job is a matter of fact I have had people with different disabilities… Again we are in the DC area so people come from all over and I had translated emails into rare languages, just so that I could respond to the email. So I translated it and I try to formulate a response and translate from English into their language, to make sure that they got what they needed. I have also arranged services for German people, which is much easier than some of the other languages…

JH: Yes you had some experience with German…

SM: Some experience yes. Going back to the things that I’ve done I taught German at the high school level for a year as well. So… Yes… German is sort of my favorite. It is not the prettiest language but it’s one that is really near and dear to my heart. My exchange years sort of lit that fire within me to communicate with as many people as I could and in as many languages as possible.

JH: How many languages have you learned so far?

SM: Well… I’ll be brutally honest and say four and a half.

JH: More than me.

SM: … So not including English because that’s kind of kind of a giveaway right

JH: That’s a gim’me right

SM: So German… I had to learn French while I was in Germany. They required it in order to attend the high school in Berlin you had to learn French. So German, French, and then I did Spanish Before I even went on my exchange. I learn Italian while I was living in Germany as well. And then Learning once I got back to the United States and I say half because, I am also learning a little bit of Dutch, because it looks and sounds a lot like German, so I know that’s cheating a little bit, but it’s still another chance to communicate with people. I’m trying Mandarin right now, but it’s so different from the European languages that that one might take me a while.

JH: Yes you will need more time for that one probably… By that way of counting I probably have one and a half languages… Spanish and Portuguese.

SM: Give yourself credit now for what you can do.

JH: There you go there you go.

Got any more… Any other languages that you are looking to learn in addition to the ones that you have. You conquered Chinese… Any other language goals that you are going for?

SM: Well general goals that have language components… I would love to tour parts of Europe for my 10th wedding anniversary in 2020. I got married in 2010, so my goal in 2020 is to visit Europe for a month and visit four to five countries.

For each country I visit I want to at least have conversational fluency and so by the time I’m 50 I want to be fluent in at least 10 languages… Maybe by the time I’m 50 I will have Mandarin under control. [Laughs]

JH: Wow. Nice nice. Well Stacy we wish you luck with that and thank you so much for this time that you have been able to spend with us to share your perspective and experience. It’s just been really awesome to learn about your experience and how far you’ve come since then.

SM: Thank you so much for having me I really appreciate it.

JH: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast please leave us a review on iTunes and consider sharing us with your networks. Also, let us know what you think on Twitter @MobilityINtL or Facebook mobility international USA using the hashtag #LifeAfterExchange.

And to learn more about #LifeAfterExchange go to

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.

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