Melissa Gulledge, CIEE Regional Director from South Carolina, has years of experience placing international exchange students from all over the world with American families, but a last minute decision to host a teenager with a disability led to one of her own family’s most meaningful hosting experiences.
The clock was ticking to match Pinar, a young woman from Turkey who is blind, with a host family and school.
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."
People who are blind often are funneled to certain fields of study, such as the arts, while the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are frequently seen as not viable options. This was the reality that Noah Al Hadidi was not going to accept.
“When I was a little kid, I used to play with electronic devices and I loved how they helped people. Later I moved to computers, and that’s how it all started.”
The World Bank, Fulbright Program, and the World Blind Union are a few opportunities that has Mohammed Ali Loutfy moving across the world map. There could be no better fit for someone fascinated about international studies, different cultures, and learning about disability inclusion across the world.
Gabriela knew with this support that she wanted to challenge herself to achieve more. With her family photos, favorite music, and favorite yucca breads packed, Gabriela was ready to pursue her studies at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in Florida.
Reflecting on her Mandela Washington Fellowship, the flagship program of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Hilda Bih Muluh says it starts with public policy.
“If we can change the national policy, then it will change a lot for people with disabilities both now and even those in the future; not just one person or one part of the country, but the nation together.”
My life was full of obstacles, difficulties, disappointments and stress as I was born with cerebral palsy in Armenia. However, due to my great willpower, industriousness, and optimistic character I have been very successful in my life.
Before I participated in the Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability in the U.S., I was very shy. I had never traveled alone. After I returned to Armenia from WILD, I wanted to change everything. As that desire grew and thanks to a grant from the Global Fund for Women, I took the first steps to found my own organization.
I was the only child in my Mongolian elementary school who was losing her hearing. At first I was considered disruptive and someone who should be sent home, but gradually my teachers realized I could study just as well as my classmates. Today, if I compare myself to them, I’m living better than most.
I was born with a visual disability and became totally blind by the age of 28. Over the course of my life I developed a strong desire to contribute to my country and strengthen the disability movement in Peru.
After returning home from WILD, I was very inspired and empowered to do many things. Being in contact with women with disabilities from other countries, who have rich and varied experiences, gave me new energy and motivated me to achieve my dreams.
In Nigeria, my culture places so much emphasis on the physical beauty of girls and women. As a polio survivor, I know that this notion causes most women and girls with disabilities to perceive their bodies as being unattractive and unacceptable. In turn, women and girls with disabilities treat their bodies with less value, which of course has serious implications for their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Jeanette Lee has been a part of the Disability Rights Movement since its inception. Though she describes herself as shy, Jeanette’s strong voice as an activist has aided in creating a society in Australia that is constantly becoming more accessible.
During her studies in Melbourne, Jeanette was told by one of her mentors that ‘the world is not made for wheelchairs,’ and that she was not ‘being realistic’ with her situation. From this disappointment in leadership grew a greater desire for justice in the world.
Tanveer Mansur Syed, from the United Arab Emirates, is one of an estimated 820,000 international students in the United States. He attends George Washington University, where he’s pursuing a master’s degree in secondary-education biology.
He’s also legally blind, so his campus experience isn’t quite the same as the average student’s. But thanks to accommodations for the disabled that were mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Syed is able to navigate his campus and the surrounding neighborhood while using innovative tools that help him keep up with his studies.
Dear Future Exchange Student,
If you are chosen as an exchange student, you might have a lot of questions and thoughts about everything. That's how I was at first.
I worried about everything, especially because of my disability. There was a time when I almost gave up on everything. I was tired of thinking of all the stuff I had to do, all the forms to fill out, all the discussions I had to have with my parents, and a lot more.
Gohar Navasardyan is the only female athlete playing with the Pyunic Center for the Disabled’s wheelchair basketball team. She powers her chair across the court with strength and grace, as she does when she’s on the dance stage. Armenia doesn’t yet have a women’s wheelchair basketball team, but there is momentum to create new sport opportunities for people with disabilities across the nation, fueled by MIUSA’s U.S. Department of State sponsored Sports for Success professional exchange program.
Azat Toroev, a U.S. Department of State-funded Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) participant from Kyrgyzstan who has a physical disability, came to the United States driven by his interests in film, volunteering, and journalism. Azat quickly became an active presence in his host community of Fort Collins, Colorado.