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.
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.
You’re probably thinking, “Wait, I have to pay to volunteer or work abroad?” It may seem counterintuitive, but keep in mind that there are significant costs for programs to send, train, and support participants abroad. Typically, U.S. sending organizations, participants, and host country partners work together to share these costs.
Most recently, Linea spent a week in Kerala, India, observing a local community mental health team, which was coordinated through Linea’s mental health advocacy mentor.
“I had never been to a developing nation before, and I went in with my American mindset that perhaps there was something that I could teach them. Perhaps there was, but I learned so much from them.”
At day’s end, Antonia's mind floods with the Chilean people she has met who may be sleeping on that cold night on mattresses in the street or sharing a room with several family members. She thinks how there is always more to do, and wonders what her role is in it all.
When Antonia graduated with an International Studies degree, she wanted to know if the lessons contained in all those textbooks would hold any weight in the real world. She decided to join Jesuit Volunteer Corps for two years in Santiago, Chile to find out.
Welcome to the online A World Awaits You (AWAY) journal on people with disabilities traveling with a purpose.
This issue introduces you to people with disabilities from the U.S. who have participated in experiential programs abroad. They are volunteers, interns, performers, athletes, and citizen diplomats. Stories and best practices include the strategies that were influential in their success.
Fascinated with the overseas experiences of a friend who joined the Peace Corps, Allen Neece followed suit and discovered a new outlet for sharing his passion for education. Allen, who is Deaf, worked with Deaf communities in Kenya, Zambia, and Guyana (2007-2011) as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He was also a volunteer with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) in Rwanda for two years, 2012-2013.
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.
Alexandra Futty has always been determined to not lead a “small life.” As a senior in high school she raised $10,000 and convinced her parents and Catholic school to allow her take a half year to go on a cultural exchange to India. “I grew up in a small town in Ohio that was very homogenous, very working class, very white, very Christian. And my whole life I have straddled the place between the sighted and non-sighted. I always felt this strong sensation that there was a larger world than what I experienced.”
Alexandra’s explorations continued as a senior in college when she went to Trinidad for two months to do independent research for her undergraduate thesis. After graduation, she spent a year in Trinidad on a Fulbright Student scholarship, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
Jessica Chesbro first learned about the Foreign Service while she was living in a bamboo hut in a small farming village in the Philippines. At the time, she was serving in the Peace Corps and working with abused children.
“The Peace Corps experience was life-changing. I learned so much about life there, and really strengthened my passion both for travel and for helping people.”
It was also life-changing because it led to her current career with the Foreign Service.
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."
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.
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.”