According to Beth Ocrant, “Every job is a stepping stone.”
For Beth, who is blind, the stepping stone that led to her first job was a study abroad experience at the University of Sunderland in England.
She spent a year in England, and when she returned, she presented on her international experience and advised her peers on study abroad. Those volunteer experiences led to a job in the Study Abroad Office at Northern Illinois University while she was still working on her degree. “I got the job because I had started out as a volunteer. I wanted to tell other students about my experiences and how great it was to encourage them to go abroad.”
After she graduated from Northern Illinois University, she spent a year working for Second Sense, a nonprofit organization that provides services for blind and visually-impaired clients.
It was another stepping stone, one that led her to a job as case manager with Easter Seals in Chicago, where she worked nine years. Easter Seals provides services to people with disabilities, including education, outreach and advocacy. While at Easter Seals, Beth drew on strengths she’d developed while studying abroad in England, including increased interpersonal skills, open-mindedness and self-esteem.
“I was more willing to take chances and not afraid to have new experiences and meet new people,” she says of her time abroad. “I remember one of my roommates said towards the end of the year that out of everyone, she thought that I had changed the most.”
Having chosen a study abroad program that met both her academic goals and her disability accommodation needs, she turned her attention to finances. Throughout her college career, she received vocational rehabilitation funds. She remained eligible for these while she studied at Sunderland because her coursework there fit in with her vocational plan.
In Beth's case, using vocational rehabilitation support for her time in England was a somewhat simple and logical process. However, every state’s rehabilitation services and study abroad programs are different regarding the amount of financial support that is given. Allow plenty of time to research and talk with your vocational rehabilitation counselor about how much financial support your state will allow you to receive while studying abroad.
"I would also advise that if you do in fact receive VR funding for your trip, that you work closely with both your rehab counselor and your study abroad coordinator to ensure that everything gets paid for that should be. I was required to pay for my own airfare, as well as any other traveling that I did while I was there. I really didn't have any extra expenses beyond that."
During her time at the University of Sunderland, she took classes in special education and literature, and had the opportunity to get field experience at a special education school in Sunderland. She also learned valuable disability skills outside the classroom. “I became more willing to ask for help which for me is huge. I never felt comfortable doing it before, but I kind of had no choice in certain situations since I was traveling alone in a foreign country and visually impaired as well. And in that same respect I also think that I became more outspoken, more willing to advocate for myself.”
All of these skills directly benefited her as a case manager at Easter Seals. Because of her improved interpersonal skills, she says, “I was always meeting new people and forming new relationships. That definitely helped me in the workplace, not only interacting with clients but with co-workers and also networking with other agencies. I also became better at asking questions and not being afraid to ask for help if needed.”
These skills were also essential because she had to balance so many responsibilities in her job. “I technically was a case manager but [with] working at a nonprofit, you kind of do whatever is needed,” she says. Her responsibilities included a caseload of eighty clients. “I did a lot of career counseling. We provided job placement services, other referrals and supportive services… like housing and child care. Once a month, I also taught basic and intermediate computer classes for people in the community. And on occasion my director would ask for help putting together grant proposals, and I did other marketing events as well when needed.”
What she learned in England has served her well in meeting the challenges of her career, but ultimately, one of the most important lessons she learned abroad has reached across all aspects of her life. It was a lesson about human nature. By meeting people from different countries and cultural backgrounds, “you tend to realize that no matter where you come from, people are just people with the same needs. I think especially working at Easter Seals, this mentality carried over because I had clients from all different backgrounds.”
Her clients include ex-offenders, low income individuals, and people with college degrees and extensive work experience. “No matter who I was working with and what their situation was, everybody wanted to be treated… with respect because they all came to us for help and at the end of the day they had similar goals and that was to be gainfully employed and self-sufficient."
During her junior year at Northern Illinois University (NIU), Beth Ocrant studied at the University of Sunderland in England through the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP). Today, she is a coordinator with Disability Services at the University of Colorado Boulder.