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.
As Alex stood on the stage of a dimly-lit comedy club, he smiled even wider as the laughs and cheers grew stronger. Alex never thought he would be performing stand-up comedy, and this was just one way that participating in an internship with a disability advocacy organization in South Africa altered his life and the path he chose to pursue.
Alex has cerebral palsy and has ridden a power wheelchair since he was two years old. “I was obviously disabled to everyone that saw me ever since I was very young, but I always ran away from that identity. I did not want to be labeled.”
Growing up as someone who is deaf, with parents who were very involved in the disability community, Seth always felt a connection with disability, and he identifies that as a significant contributing factor in his overall life trajectory. Halfway through his time at IBM working in the finance department, he moved over to work on accessibility, and appreciated the work that he and his team accomplished together.
"I think that it is just a natural progression based on my upbringing and my passion."
From the beginning of her studies at Boston University, Elana knew she wanted field experience helping children with and without disabilities to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
“I thought it would be cool to do an internship overseas because it would give me a unique perspective from another culture for my future career.”
So she looked into all her options, and took an active role in getting necessary accommodations for an internship while studying abroad in Australia for a semester.
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.
After a five hour ride in a clunky van over dirt roads, Jake Robinson and his fellow study abroad students arrived in the remote, densely forested interior of Ghana to visit a medical clinic. After lunch, the local host led the group along a dirt path – at first surrounded by children excited by Jake’s red wheelchair, then past a goat in someone’s living room, and deeper into the jungle for a good distance. Just when Jake was thinking they must be getting close, he learned his adventure was not soon to end.
To understand where he was headed, one must start nine months earlier. For Jake, like other American students with mobility disabilities, the default message he had received during college was: “Go to class, pass your courses, get your degree, and then move on. It’s easier to just not study abroad.” But Jake is different. He is not the kind of person to follow the standard path – he is adventurous and, as an undergraduate, he wanted to go places.
Tyler Clark’s interest peaked when he visited Valparaiso University in Indiana for the first time, and the campus tour guide mentioned the university’s study abroad programs. “Would I be able to study abroad?” he asked the study abroad office that day to which the reply came, “Well, when would you like to?” A year after enrolling in Valparaiso, Tyler, who has cerebral palsy, changed his major to Spanish in hopes of becoming an international interpreter. Studying abroad would let him know whether or not he enjoyed living abroad and also if he could improve his language skills.
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.
In one of the remaining Arabic fishing villages on the coast of Israel, Jisr Az’Zarqa, Tory Sampson and her best friend found themselves in a rundown, corrugated steel restaurant. It had “the most amazing” fish dishes. Afterwards, they wandered into a shisha (hookah) bar, and ended up watching a soccer game between Barcelona and Real Madrid with the locals. For Tory, who was studying abroad in Israel for seven months, this day offered up a surreal moment still vivid in her mind. Yet, it is just one of many memories in Israel and beyond.
What if your major is International Studies or your degree requires you to take classes overseas? How can you study abroad during your college experience, and pay for your personal assistant while traveling? These questions were always lingering in the background waiting to be answered for Xuan Troung, a student at North Carolina State University who has osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. To find the answers, she turned to her Vocational Rehabilitation counselor.
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.
When Alahna Keil, who has cerebral palsy, enrolled in Luther College in Iowa, located an hour away from her home in Wisconsin, the idea of studying abroad seemed far from her mind. She was apprehensive about the possibility of study abroad both for academic and physical reasons. Then something changed. She learned of 3-week programs for the January term break. The length seemed manageable, the four academic credits useful, and the faculty supportive – it ended up being a perfect opportunity. By her sophomore year, Alahna was on her way to China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
Whether trekking through dense jungles or scaling tall temples, traversing over tough terrain is sometimes necessary on our international adventures. Scroll through our photo slideshow to see how other intrepid travelers with mobility disabilities have forged ahead on their international paths - by tractor, by piggyback, and even by yak!
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."