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Ripple Effects 4.4: Insiders Advice on Studying Abroad with Your College

A group of male and female students, including a man seated in a power wheelchair, gather in front of a Chinese monumen in the rain.
A group of male and female students, including a man seated in a power wheelchair, gather in front of a Chinese monumen in the rain.

Get a better sense of how to study abroad with Suzanne Sears of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Teneisha Ellis of the University of Northern Colorado from this conversation in which they shared tips on how to approach your study abroad and disability service offices while taking charge of your exchange experience.

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Justin Harford: Ripple effects comes to you from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. 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

Suzanne Sears: Try to take a step away from what you are accustomed to having, an understanding that the resources may look very different when you are in another country or another culture. 

Justin: We always say that an important part of preparing for international exchanges is doing your research. One excellent source of research is the office of study abroad and the office of disability service on a college or university campus. Sometimes the best way to get an idea of what you are getting yourself into is to speak with the people on the inside who work on these programs every day. We decided to do just that for this podcast episode. Suzanne Sears and Teneisha Ellis worked together for a number of years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sending students with disabilities abroad on a variety of different programs. I had a chance to talk with them about some of the things that you should plan for when you are preparing to study abroad, and I think that the conversation is a great complement to our webinar on study abroad that we did last February, which is available in the related links section of our show notes. The most important thing to keep in mind however is that the one who can make the best choice for you is you. The best exchange experiences happen when we are courageous and we base our decisions on what we know about ourselves rather than what other people think about us. I hope you enjoy the discussion and please don’t hesitate to drop us a line at to share your thoughts.

Justin: Okay. Today we are here with Teneisha Ellis and Suzanne Sears. Teneisha is a professional in the international exchange world and Suzanne is coming to us from the world of disability services. I’m really happy to be able to speak with you  both today. I know that you had a great experience working together at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Is that right?

Suzanne: Absolutely yes

Justin: Exactly. And just an update for our listeners and everybody. A couple months ago we did a webinar on how to study abroad with a disability. We had a panel of people with disabilities who had gone abroad. I just wanted to take the opportunity now on our podcast that I have a group of professionals… Insiders to get a sense from you  as to what students should be thinking about. I wonder if you would just open and tell us an overview about your experience working together. How was it that you  came to collaborate to get more disabled students to go abroad?

Suzanne: Well… Again this is Suzanne Sears speaking, and I would say when I was pretty early on in my career one of the things that I felt that needed some additional addressing at the campus level was the collaboration between disability services and the study abroad offices. So maybe it was my energy being an entry-level professional in the field of disability services, but I just took the initiative and reached out to the office and started a dialogue and a conversation about ways that we could actually collaborate together. And that is where it began, but as we have worked with students with different needs throughout the following years I was able to become acquainted with Teneisha in the office. We actually had a student in common we were working with that actually sort of started that relationship between the two of us.

Justin: Ah

Teneisha: With the student that she is mentioning one of the things was that I had them as an advisee. Previously you never really met students who applied to a program. I had some questions about the student’s application and when he…

Justin: He was a wheelchair user right?

Teneisha: Yes but they never told me that in the application or the essay, and so the location that they wanted to attend was not accessible for the weight of his chair. So that…

Justin: He used a power chair right?

Teneisha: Yes. The thing that caught me was that he said he didn’t tell me because he was afraid would say no. It wasn’t no… It was that we needed to find another location that was going to be accessible to the student. It took some time and he had to change the term, but I needed to reach out to someone who could tell me what I needed to do because I never work with students with disabilities before.

Justin: So what was it like for you when you reached out to Suzanne Teneisha and had that support?

Teneisha: In all honesty I had no idea what the questions were to even ask. I had worked maybe two years in the field before this and now I’ve been here seven almost 8 years. And I had no students who had asked these questions. I didn’t know much about ADA rules at all and I had a lot to read up on. She was kind of an encyclopedia for me. What I could and could not do. Because the vocabulary was different too. I needed to know how to talk to the student to not make him feel alienated in any way. That was the biggest thing for me was the vocabulary when I talked to the student. The student was very open. He told me things and I would think “I had no idea what that means I have to talk to Suzanne.” I think the very first student I worked with… I wouldn’t say was easy, because it just kept escalating after. After he went everyone wanted to go. So it was good to be connected with disability services.

Justin: Yes I imagine the word started spreading with the other students. So anyway getting back to the topic I wonder if we could start from the point of view of the student. If I am a student with disabilities and I’m listening to this and maybe I heard the webinar on our website, and I’m trying to think through other things that I should be doing. If I am a disabled student and I have been may be going to college for a couple years now and I’m pretty familiar with things on my home campus and I want to study abroad. What is the first thing that I should expect is I’m going through this process and working with study abroad and disability services?

Teneisha: One of the big things that every student is allowed to do is to come to the office and ask questions about any program they might be interested in. That is the first step. When I advise, I don’t allow students to take their first choice when they come in. It is usually “oh my friends said this”, but you have to think how this is going to fit you. So it is more of trying to get a program that is going to work, but at the same time with disability services, they know how far a student can achieve in a semester. For example, there are only cobblestone streets and there is no access to buildings outside of going up steps. I should go back to say that the University of Illinois is one of the top disability service campuses in the United States, so a lot of accessibility that the students thought would be the same on campus would not be abroad. So initially the student is the one to start the conversation. With their permission of course I would call Suzanne was disability services to give the background of the program, the expectations the student might have and if at all possible I would do a site visit at the location to to check what is available and what is not available. Those of the things that we discussed. I was in charge of that at Illinois for couple years.

Suzanne: And I think Teneisha’s point about understanding what your options are… One of the things that we encourage students to do and this is the same for all students wanting to study abroad is to think about what are the essential requirements of your study abroad experience. Is it a more culturally based program, or are you going to be taking actual coursework at a host University. Understanding what is going to be expected of you when you select a particular program and, and then based off of that information we start a dialogue and the conversation about what kinds of reasonable accommodations are going to be needed based on the essential requirements, or the things that you’re going to be responsible for completing for that study abroad program. So that kind of is a good starting point and as Teneisha said, you really have to be the one to initiate that discussion or conversation. 

Teneisha: Although the accessibility part is really important, my office is really more looking at what is your major, what is your minor, not just using a location. If you are not a math major, but this program otherwise fits you, it won’t fit you, you won’t necessarily have the best time and you won’t pass your classes either.

Justin: One thing I got the sense of though, Teneisha you mentioned that people go overseas and expect a similar level of accessibility and they don’t get it. Suzanne it sounded like you were touching on that point to and I’m curious if you  have any examples of any kind of accommodations be they structural or policy wise that the student might have on their own campus that they would not have abroad. Of course there are the obvious one such as cobblestone streets overseas, but are there any other ones that maybe wouldn’t still be so obvious based on the conversation so far?

Suzanne: I think looking so far the general student service supports on the campus might be different based on different cultural factors. The way that we socially construct disability within a culture, and so not to expect that another institution in another country is going to have the level of maybe individual counseling services or things of that nature,

Teneisha: Or if they have a breathing issue Peru probably would not be the best place to go, and I mentioning that because I come from Illinois where it is completely flat and I live in Colorado and it took me several months to be able to walk and breathe at the same time.

Justin: Yes good point a lot of structural stuff. I was actually giving a talk at some universities a couple weeks ago in Mexico and I noticed from that research… like what you were saying Suzanne sometimes mental health services are not  strong. You can have universities that are thinking a lot about services for blind people, or deaf people, but they are not quite so much there when it comes to for example things like mental health.

Suzanne: Right yes.

Justin: So that is something to take into account.

Suzanne: I think some of the strengths in terms of mine and Teneisha’s collaboration is the fact that the study abroad advisors are very well versed in terms of the nuances and the nature of the programs in which we offer to the U of I students. That has been a tremendous part of how we are able to successfully work together. They know the ins and outs of the culture, and the landscape of the country. As Teneisha said, the environmental factors that can impact students as well when they are abroad.

Justin: Totally. It seems like what I’m getting hereto is that there is definitely a lot of need for research and it seems like study abroad advisors, the DS office can be a great thing. I’m kind of curious if you think that there is anything else that the student looking at study abroad opportunities might want to research so that when they come in they are not just saying “I want to go to Peru because my friends said it’s really great.” So that they are informed and have an idea of what the advisor is going to tell them about the accommodations overseas?

Teneisha: The class that you offer every semester with helping students with an attendant. The accessibility class… What was that called? And I like coming into that one in talking to students about the possibility of study abroad.

Suzanne: Yes currently my role was in disability services. I am now the director of residential program called Beckwith Residential Support Services and we can accommodate up to 26 residents currently enrolled U of I students with significant physical disabilities. Part of the Beckwith program involves a transitional disability management planning class that students within our program can take. We look at how to live independently, successfully manage your personal assistance, but we also talk about student engagement. Part of the student engagement and the UI experience is study abroad, and so we have actually had Teneisha come in when she was here on our campus and talk about study abroad opportunities as well as how to effectively navigate the process of research and preparing to travel abroad if that is an aspiration of yours to do before you graduate, and so that is one way that we collaborate it as well in the past.

Justin: Yes there is definitely a lot of research that students can do right. Internet searching, checking with mobility international, even countries will publish resources on University websites, there are articles, blogs, people talking about access in different forms. So lots of definitely different ways that people can do that. What do you think is the top thing that a disabled student should know before taking on this challenge.

Teneisha: One of the biggest things in Illinois is that if a student needed an aide they chose their own aide. But the aide would have to be trained before they could go abroad with the student as well.

Suzanne: One of the things is that a student with in our residential program, and we have had a number over the years to study abroad, they have access to a lift system in their rooms in our residential program. We try to educate and inform the student with a disability as well as the student PA that maybe accompanying a student abroad, you might not have access to such equipment, so when you do transfers from bed to chair for instance or chair to bed to the restroom, those kinds of things what is that going to look like. What will that involve to safely help in that capacity with the activities of daily living as an assistant without having that auxiliary aid equipment with transferring. Try to take a step away from what you are accustomed to having, an understanding that the resources may look very different when you are in another country or another culture. 

Justin: That is a really great point. It is so easy for us as people with disabilities or service providers on campuses in the US to get so used to… Well the way I get my books as I take them to the DS office and they digitalized them or the way that you transfer is like what you are saying that we can kind of forget that there are other ways of doing it. Stepping back, looking at what are the accommodations you use now, what are the ones you can take overseas and the ones you can’t, and what are the alternatives for that last category.

Suzanne: Well certainly.

Justin: Awesome well thank you  both so much. This has been really appreciated. I know that our listeners are really going to appreciate it. We will be in touch I hope thank you so much

Teneisha: Thank you

Suzanne: Thank you for the opportunity.

Justin: And that concludes today’s episode of Ripple Effects: travelers with disabilities abroad. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and letting your friends know you’ve done so by sharing. If you feel really positively about us, you might also consider leaving us a review on iTunes. All of those things will help us get the word out to more people.

Ripple Effects: Travelers With Disabilities Abroad as brought to you by the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the US Department Of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in all kinds of international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA.

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