In a village five hours outside of Nairobi, Kenya, with no electricity or running water, Tara Wickey, who has muscular dystrophy, was studying abroad for her graduate degree in Public Service Management at DePaul University. While there, Tara observed the ways in which Kenyans are responding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the government and non-governmental levels. “It was difficult and quite a culture shock. It made me appreciate and acknowledge all the developed world comforts I had come to take advantage of.”
Surfing the internet, trying to find other career options, landed Frank Lester on the Peace Corps website and led him to its Deaf Program in Kenya. This immediately sparked Frank’s interest.
He always enjoyed teaching and working with Deaf youth, and this seemed like an exciting international experience, which still allowed him to apply his existing skills. That was all Frank needed to see. He applied, got accepted, and was ready for his flight to Africa, but little did he realize the impact this would have on his life and others.
Kimberly Tissot, Executive Director of Able South Carolina, heard the determination in the voices of her partners in the Dominican Republic: “We need to know how it is possible for you to be independent in the U.S., and how to make those changes here.”
When Christie Gilson received an offer to teach at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, she was ready to make the move. “I was not at all intimidated by the thought of pulling up roots and moving far away from home by myself. After all, I had successfully done so in Hong Kong beforehand.”
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."
Robert Thompson returned home to the United States from his volunteer experiences in India very humbled. He noticed the contrast between poverty and luxury, between being appreciative and taking something for granted.
“I loved seeing the smiles on people’s faces after they received something that was of great value to them, whether it was our time with them or new knowledge and skills they obtained.... I have come back with a new perspective on who I am and the things that matter most in life.”
A Hendrix College graduate in English Literature, Laura Podd traveled for a year to Guatemala, Ireland, Thailand, and Ukraine. And she had $25,000 on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to do it. Laura didn’t speak the local languages, but she took some Spanish courses and found local volunteers who translated into English. Those she met who spoke with heavy English accents took repetition to understand. Laura, who describes herself as having a mild hearing impairment, uses hearing aids and lip-reading well enough that most people do not immediately know that she has a disability unless she tells them.
Going overseas was something I had wanted to do since my early college days. I had always dreamed of being in the jungles of Africa or on a camel riding through a desert, but when the opportunity came to travel to Russia with Wheels for the World, I enthusiastically accepted the challenge.
In Italy, my friend Neika always did the haggling for me. Left to my own devices, the shopkeepers would have taken me for thousands. She was skilled at bargaining and probably the reason I came home with so many delightful souvenirs and jewelry from Venice.
It is not just with bargaining that I have trouble “putting myself out there.” Despite my tendency to shy away from things, I have always had very big plans for myself. Early in high school, I realized that I wanted to travel extensively, earn a PhD degree, and live an adventurous life.
One day while teaching as usual, I noticed new parents appeared with their Deaf daughter. After my colleagues and I met with the parents, I was shocked to discover that their daughter never had been to school or learned sign language. Instead, she stayed at home and worked on the farm. She was already 18 years old. It was heartbreaking for me.
As a teacher at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf, my students started a project to assist their peers who struggle with reading. Although my students are fluent English readers, the vast majority of the school’s freshmen students are English Language Learners who cannot read at the 9th grade level, which makes novels used for course curricula inaccessible to them.
With an interest in learning about the cultural, political, and food differences between France and the United States, Loren Ashton embarked on semester-long study abroad to Aix-en-Provence, France, where she attended the Institute of American Universities. Loren, who is Deaf, had the added chance to learn about another aspect of French culture, Deaf French culture. In doing so, Loren built pride in her sign language and new cross-cultural communication skills.
When Mary Hodge, head coach of the USA Paralympic Powerlifting team, travels internationally for competition, others often approach her looking for assistance from the United States. In the past, uncertain of how to contribute beyond just money, she kept her interactions short. Now that Mary has connected with Armenians with disabilities as part of Mobility International USA (MIUSA)’s U.S. Department of State SportsUnited exchange, she has a different perspective.
Maegan, who is Deaf, lives by her principle of speaking out against injustices. Her first experience abroad opened up her eyes to international disability advocacy, a field that she’s dedicated herself to ever since.
Denise works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service. She has been blind from birth and has always loved languages. Her study of French and Spanish began in high school and continued through college, where she was a language major. As Denise enhanced her language skills, she sought out opportunities to get involved in international exchange, but encountered barriers related to her disability.