Empathy as Employability

young woman sits on the bridge of a canal, with bicycle and canal visible behind her
Shannon's travels around the globe (like her visit to Amsterdam, pictured here) help her connect with her clients and co-workers alike.
As part of her internship supporting inbound exchange students, University of Illinois graduate Shannon Kelly draws from her four - yes, four! - study abroad experiences to make her students feel at home and to show colleagues what's possible.

With the busiest season just behind her, Shannon Kelly reflects on the role she and her colleagues played in the experiences of over 2000 students from around the world who arrived in the U.S. this summer through Spirit Cultural Exchange, where Shannon works as an intern:

"These students are thousands of miles away from their families and friends; we're here to be advocates for them."

Although Shannon didn't have to travel as far for her internship - Spirit operates out of Oak Park, Illinois, roughly 150 miles from her university in Urbana - she nonetheless could empathize with many of the sponsored international students as they began their jobs and internship placements across the U.S. Like her, many of the students likely harbored nerves about transitioning from the classroom setting to a formal workplace setting, acclimating to eight hour work days, while also negotiating language barriers - something that Shannon says can feel uncomfortable at first and takes time to master.

"When I first started, I was really nervous to start answering phones. For these students, English is their second language, so I was concerned that I would have a hard time communicating with them and answering their questions."

Once she learned all the different procedures and had a few weeks of practice under her belt, Shannon felt a lot more confident answering the phone.

"That is such a valuable skill to have, because every company looks for someone with good communication skills!"

Shannon works hard to smooth her students' transitions and manage their expectations about living and working in the U.S. by answering their questions about securing visas, insurance, social security, housing, and work environments. Likewise, prior to the start of her internship at Spirit, Shannon found herself working with staff to do some pre-arrival planning of her own. As a wheelchair user, she opts to broach the subject of disability early on in the interview process so there are no surprises later on ("You are not legally required to disclose," she adds, "but I think it’s helpful, especially if you need the employer to make accommodations.")

Before coming in to the office for her first day, Shannon appreciated getting a call from her boss to talk about accessibility, setting the tone for a supportive and collaborative working relationship to follow. Her advice for other job-seekers with disabilities is to be confident in their abilities.

"Sometimes applying for a job with a disability is draining, but just know that there are great companies out there that would be lucky to have you on their team."

Shannon savors the perks of working in the international exchange field. Whatever challenges arise on the job, Shannon says that hearing from happy participants who enjoyed their programs always makes up for it. Beyond that, working alongside colleagues and fellow interns who share her passion for international exchange has been a major highlight.

"It’s been cool to hear about their experiences abroad and to tell mine. People often find it surprising that I’ve traveled so extensively regardless of my wheelchair, so by sharing my stories, I can show them that it’s possible."

Shannon's prior international travels to places as far-flung as South Africa, Europe, and Australia also helps her empathize with the students.

"If you're thinking about a career in international education, I think it is important to have international experience firsthand. That way you can say 'I was homesick too when I studied abroad in Australia' or 'This is how I got over the language barrier.' Being able to relate to the people you are working for is huge."

Although Shannon can see herself continuing in the international education field, she would like to find ways to tap into her other talents and passions, including writing and environmental advocacy. For now, though, Shannon is already in the thick of preparing for the arrival of next term's students and starting the recruitment process for next summer's cohort, coordinating job offers, identifying cultural activities, and assisting with marketing tasks.

"I'm so happy I applied at Spirit; it's been a perfect first job out of college, and I couldn't ask for better co-workers."

And that - the feeling of setting the bar high at the outset of one's career - is something to which anyone could hope to relate.

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in October, this story is part of a series spotlighting young professionals with disabilities gaining work experience in the field of international education. Get your foot in the door in this exciting field!


Ashley Holben