Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

A Semester of Discovery in Ghana

Three young women with their backs to the camera face a view overlooking a valley far below.
Three young women with their backs to the camera face a view overlooking a valley far below.

As a student, volunteer, teammate, and friend, Gilman Scholar Jennifer Smith fulfilled many roles while living in Ghana – and realized her strength along the way.

It was typical for Jennifer Smith* to meander through different wards of the nearby hospital in Ghana where she volunteered after the day’s classes. But on one less-than-typical day, in the children’s ward, she saw her post-college plans snap into focus where they had once been hazy.

“I wished I could help nurture the children at the hospital back to health, and I became upset that I didn’t know how. Of course, the doctors and nurses there knew exactly what they were doing, and I began asking them a lot of questions. At that moment I decided I wanted to go back to school and become a nurse. Someday, I’d like to return to Ghana and open a clinic of my own.”

It was one of several personal discoveries over the course of Jennifer’s semester abroad that attracted her to leave Ohio in the first place. “I thought I’d be able to find out more about what I wanted to do after college.”

A health sciences major at Cleveland State University, Jennifer studied at the University of Ghana in Legon on a Gilman Scholarship, a program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Her spring semester in Ghana on a University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) program for American students allowed Jennifer to gain academic credit towards her undergraduate degree as well as a first-hand understanding of nursing. She even made Ghanaian friends from the University’s Health Sciences program and met many nurses pursuing their master’s degrees.

Growing up, Jennifer had been raised on lessons and stories about African culture and history – including those of Ghana – from her mother, and she had long dreamed of experiencing it first-hand.

Traveling abroad with chronic health conditions can be intimidating to some, but Jennifer felt confident that she could manage her epilepsy, anxiety, and celiac disease (an autoimmune condition characterized by an extreme reaction to gluten) in Ghana if she gave herself enough time to prepare. Before she embarked on her trip, Jennifer worked closely with her university’s study abroad office, consulted with her doctors, and did some online research to determine how best to continue her medication regimen abroad. Though many of the medications she uses to manage her disabilities are not available in Ghana, her doctor wrote her a prescription that allowed her to order a bulk supply to take with her in her carry-on luggage.

With these preparations in place, Jennifer could devote her energy to sampling an array of fresh experiences that she wouldn’t find anywhere else. “I had many roles in Ghana,” Jennifer says, referring to the many extracurricular activities that deepened her appreciation of her host community. A lover of languages (she had previously studied in Oman to learn Arabic), Jennifer took classes in Twi, Ghana’s most widely-spoken language. Volunteering at the West African AIDS Foundation and in the hospital’s pharmacy deepened her understanding about Ghana’s social approach to the health sciences.

But perhaps one of her most unexpected gateways into student and community life was by joining the university’s rugby team. Not only did she make lasting friendships with her teammates (“we still talk almost every day”), but as the first woman to play on the all-male team, she also made a big splash, catching the eye of the local media who covered her story. She hopes that the show of support she received from her team and the community will pave the way for other women to join the team. But she also broke the mold in another way.

“A lot of people asked me why I would play rugby when I have epilepsy. I played because I love the game.”

The same can often be said for people with disabilities who get asked why they would trouble themselves to study abroad so far from their usual networks of support, the protections of the ADA, and their preferred methods of living independently. Put simply, disability is not in itself a barrier to do the things one loves to do, and Jennifer recalls no moment in her journey when she didn’t feel fully included.

That’s not to say life in Ghana was without its challenges. Finding food that agreed with her gluten- and lactose-intolerant stomach was a constant concern, for instance. But whatever came her way, from power outages to fetching her own shower water when visiting friends in rural areas, Jennifer surprised herself by her resilience.

“Of course I learned a lot about the culture and demographics of Ghana, but I also learned a lot about myself. I learned that I was a lot stronger – mentally, physically, and emotionally – than I realized.”

She also drew strength from her interactions and friendships with Ghanaians and American peers. “I learned that I actually do like people and started to realize that my anxiety was kind of like a mean friend that followed me around and didn’t like it when I talked to others. Seeing it this way changed my outlook on life. I believe I can do anything now.”

It’s a mindset she brought back to Ohio once the semester ended. Upon their return home, all Gilman Scholars carry out a Follow-on Service Project to promote international education and the Gilman program specifically. Jennifer chose to speak to students registered through Cleveland State’s Office of Disability Services and its TRIO program in order to reach students who might not otherwise think that study abroad is for them.

“It’s important to tell stories like mine and those of others who studied abroad. It shows that anything is possible.”

*Not the student’s real name.

3 facts to know about the Gilman Scholarship

  • Diversity among Gilman Scholars is a big plus! Self-identifying as a person with a disability AND choosing a non-traditional destination like Sub-Saharan Africa can really make your application stand out!
  • Scholarships can be applied towards credit-bearing study abroad programs or overseas internships.
  • Over 1,100 Gilman Scholarship recipients have disclosed having a disability.

Find complete information on eligibility requirements, application timelines, and more on the Gilman Scholarship website.

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