Carla Valpeoz wouldn’t take no for an answer. When her application for the Peace Corps was unsuccessful, she decided to contact a friend in Yemen to brainstorm other ideas for an international exchange.
“I asked him if he knew of any job I could do for six months that was social justice based. He then emailed me and said he had something waiting, so I went."
While in Yemen, Valpeoz, who is blind, taught English to blind students at Sana’a University as part of a practicum for her Master’s program in Social Justice and Conflict Transformation at SIT Graduate Institute. She also worked with Islamic Relief Yemen and organized workshops with an organization that empowered women in the workforce.
“I want to be working on the ground in the field rather than behind closed doors because I feel that this is where the strongest impact is made."
Valpeoz first began studying Arabic as an undergraduate at Texas Tech University, which led her to her first study abroad experience. Her Arabic professor was from Tunisia, and she encouraged her students to consider studying there. Valpeoz spent a summer in Tunisia.
“I became extremely confident and then wanted to study abroad again and again." So she studied abroad again for a semester in Seville, Spain a year later. And then again for a year in Cairo, Egypt.
She received a full scholarship for her program in Seville, where she studied Spanish and Spanish culture and arts. She traveled extensively while she was there and fell in love with the country. She also interned in Seville, assisting with the exchange program.
“I served as a bridge between the American students and local Spanish students who wanted to improve their language skills.”
In Egypt, she studied Arabic at American University in Cairo. She also volunteered and taught English as a Second Language to a class of thirty three refugees.
“I have become quite open-minded and adaptable to new and challenging environments [because of my experiences overseas. I have strong cross-cultural communication skills. I have spent much time educating others and raising issues at work, even today. I have become culturally sensitive which has allowed me to carry out workshops and activities with very vulnerable groups of people."
Through her experiences abroad, Valpeoz also learned a great deal about herself, including what she wanted to do for a career. “I want to be both a student as well as a teacher and bridge communities, raising awareness of issues that directly impact female populations. I want to work alongside… people and empower them to use their life experiences.”
That’s exactly what she did next in Michigan with ACCESS, the largest Arab-American human services nonprofit organization in the United States. She assists with English as a Second Language classes and also tutors Arab and Latino students. She also designs workshops and activities for students. “I learn something new every day and the fact that I am on a team that is open to thinking outside the box and challenging the students is helping me out a lot.”
She has also worked in Washington, D.C., with Mary House, an organization that serves Latino immigrants and Iraqi refugees.
Her time abroad was essential for developing the skills that she now uses in her workplace every day. All of these skills are important at multicultural organizations such as ACCESS, as well as other organizations throughout the United States, which is becoming increasingly multicultural and multilingual.
She also sees herself as an educator working to challenge perceptions about disability, specifically blindness.
“Many [people] have learned about blindness from interacting with me and getting to know me. They see a different side [of me] and understand [me] from a different perspective. I am just like anyone else. I may do things a little different, but I am just as capable and I feel that it is important to change the way people view blindness.”
Engaging in conversations concerning blindness with her Yemeni students proved quite challenging. “Teacher Carla, why do we have to talk about Braille and independence?” a student asked. “Ma Shah Allah! You are amazing, but we could never be like you.”
Thinking about how she could go about changing this attitude, of living without the fear of being blind, ran through her mind everyday. Of course, she would have to be sensitive to Yemen culture and its tightly rooted views. She knew it would take more than her six-month stay but she tried different strategies each day.
As a blind female in Yemen, she felt accepted, covering herself from head to toe outside her home - a symbol of respect towards the culture, as well as a way to fully experience being female in a predominantly male society.
"Although, not the norm, if I needed to go out after sunset and Ibrahim was unable to accompany me, I took the chance and went alone, making my way through crowded streets. If lost, I approached any local for directions and occasionally engaged in friendly conversations if they allowed. My approach was strange for some, but admired by others."
She walked through the dark alleys of the old city with her cane in one hand and her head up high to convey a sense of confidence and self-reliance among the blind. "I wanted them to realize their potential by raising awareness about blindness in the sighted world."
She recommends that others with disabilities go abroad, because she says, “It will help a person learn more about himself or herself and at the same time teach others about them.”
There’s no better way to do that than on the ground in the field, just as Valpeoz prefers.
“I can always sit in front of a class and do a presentation about blindness, but it is so much more powerful if one learns through interactions.”
Carla completed her graduate work at the School for International Training.