In the summer of 2015 I left the creature comforts of Ohio behind for a study-abroad/volunteer program in one of the developing nations in the Caribbean. Having never traveled outside the United States before, I had only a vague idea what to expect. A few things weighed heavily on my mind as I took off from the airport in Cincinnati. I knew I was the first blind student to gain acceptance into my program. Before I applied, another had been denied entry because the administrators didn't believe her orientation and mobility skills were strong enough for her to handle the trip.
“There’s an undeniable vibe that moves through the air” Justice Shorter ascribes to her temporary home in northern Uganda and Rwanda. “My study abroad experience gave me the chance to encounter that time and time again.”
As a graduate student at SIT Graduate Institute, Justice chose to study on SIT’s Peace & Post Conflict Reconciliation summer program in Uganda and Rwanda to observe how inclusive development can be used to alleviate the effects of poverty while working towards her Master’s in Sustainable Development.
Working virtually out of Michigan, Juanita is a long way from her supervisor in Colorado and her colleagues operating out of Massachusetts and Texas. Yet, from Juanita's perspective, the collaborative way in which the team works together seems to diminish the distance between them.
"What I really like about my co-workers is that they connect and communicate; they can really relate to people, and honestly that's why I studied abroad with them in the first place."
How can you translate your campus' idealistic principles of inclusion to the global campus that is study abroad? In this best practice, adapted from her post to the UC Davis Study Abroad blog, Program Coordinator & Advisor Dana Armstrong ponders this challenge while reflecting on her experience advising a student who is blind traveling to China. Follow-up conversations with study abroad alumni with disabilities can put the realities more into perspective.
Sean didn’t know what to expect on his first journey abroad, so he focused on the usual.
“I wondered how easy it would be to get around, what people’s reactions would be to me, and how different it would be from what I’m used to in the United States.”
What he discovered in Nicaragua was the travel concerns ended up being much less of an issue, for which he now admits he may have over prepared. Instead, he found himself grappling more with the cultural contradictions he discovered there.
Most mornings of her Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program in India, Esha Mehta would wake early and catch a rickshaw with her roommate to her Hindi classes. The morning she remembers most, however, happened at sunrise while on an excursion to Pushkar in Rajasthan, India. Mehta, who is blind and an avid hiker, joined others from the American group to hike to an old temple. Dressed in traditional Indian clothes, Esha trusted her feet, as she usually does, to guide her along the rocky way and up many stairs.
“When we got to the top, it was really beautiful. My friend Nicole was tracing my hand along the horizon as the sun was rising and telling me what it looked like. Then I asked everyone to stop talking and to experience nature with their eyes closed, just listening to the birds and other sounds.” For Esha this type of interpersonal exchange creates an opportunity to educate and learn; something that occurred frequently on her U.S. Department of State-sponsored CLS program.
Erinn Snoeyink, who is blind, majored in Spanish at Hope College and was anxious to find opportunities to immerse herself in the language and become more proficient. She quickly found the first opportunity by studying abroad in Seville, Spain, but this was definitely not her last. The food, culture, language, and overall experience kept her wanting to return for more.
If you travel more than once, this will help you be more independent the second time.
Elizabeth Sammons did not know when she initially applied to the Peace Corps years ago that only 1 of 4 applicants was accepted and it was rare for a blind person to apply, but knowing that would not have stopped her. "I'm blind - so what? I have a lot to give, and I want to do it in the Peace Corps."
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.”
Given that I have a hard enough time locating my own shoes, I'm not quite sure how I convinced the Study Abroad offices to drop me off halfway around the world to study in Melbourne, Australia. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a great decision, so, as an Aussie might say, "Good on them for that."