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.
The humid heat in Malaysia, lack of air conditioning, and cold showers made adjusting to the first four days of her study abroad program difficult for Stephanie, a student from University of South Florida. She also had to get used to wearing long skirts and pants in the heat, as is customary for women in this predominantly Muslim country.“I have depression paired with anxiety and once I got there, it spiked. I don’t know what it was. Leaving a lot of the luxury that you take for granted played a part. It was like the realization that you are definitely not home.”
Then by the fifth day, it all changed. The experiences she had been exposed to in Malaysia began to make the journey worth it, despite some discomforts. She had put in place different strategies to make adjusting to living abroad easier: journaling her feelings, maintaining her medication, and finding a way to connect by Internet back home.
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.
In Siberia, Russia, I teach blind and low vision people how to use a computer, so they can continue with their education. We have many different educational challenges for people with disabilities in my country. I know this situation very well because I have been blind since birth. I studied in a boarding school, and earned two higher education degrees.
From her host community of Spokane, Washington, Polina beams as she recalls the highlights of her academic year on the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program.
“I’m fully enjoying my time here! I have everything I need: a great host family, people who care about me and have been supporting me from the very first day I met them, a school with good teachers, and new friends.”
But like many high school students who consider studying abroad, Polina wasn’t always so sure her experience would be a positive one.
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.”
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.
"I got so tired of people crying for me every time I ventured onto the streets of Albania in my wheelchair that I decided it would be better to just stay home. I was only twenty-five when I was in a terrible car accident that caused irreparable damage to my spinal cord. As a result, I am now a paraplegic and a wheelchair user.
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."