Juanita Lillie said it was the conversations she had with others and the support she received while studying abroad in Costa Rica that inspired her to encourage other students with disabilities to pursue their own study abroad dreams.
Because of retinitis pigmentosa, her vision is restricted to the size of a pinhole and Lillie is legally blind. She participated in a study abroad program in Costa Rica in the winter 2013 semester, and was able to immerse herself in all aspects of the Costa Rican culture, including going surfing and zip lining across the jungle.
Shortly after returning from what Lillie referred to as a life-changing semester overseas, the senior majoring in Spanish turned to Facebook to begin creating her own conversations.
“When I returned from Costa Rica, I found it hard to believe that I was one of the few students with a disability who had chosen to study abroad,” said Lillie. “When I was preparing to go to Costa Rica I wanted to talk with other students who were in similar situations as mine and they weren’t always easy to find. That is what led me to create the Facebook page because I want students with all types of disabilities to know studying abroad is completely possible.”
The Facebook page developed as part of an independent study with Spanish professor Natalia Gomez, who spoke highly of her experience with Lillie.
“Working with Lillie has been a very enriching experience for me. Every week she posts a new question to the page and just by reading it, I am constantly thinking about better ways that I can help future students with disabilities to achieve their dreams to study overseas,” said Gomez.
Aside from sharing her own experiences, Lillie said her goal for the page is to reach out to other students with disabilities who are willing to share their stories and create a network that is able to learn and collaborate amongst each other.
“I think that many organizations such as Mobility International USA provide valuable resources, but talking with people who have actually gone through the process and are able to provide first-hand experiences is invaluable for students with disabilities,” said Lillie.
Gomez said she recognizes the importance of creating conversation because although efforts have been made, research shows that students with disabilities are still underrepresented amongst study abroad participants at universities.
“Students are more inclined to study abroad if they have strong community that supports them and one of the many objectives of Juanita’s Facebook page is to create an open and inclusive space for students with disabilities to support each other,” said Gomez.
Lillie said she is passionate about raising awareness for this subject and plans to attend the Michigan Association of International Educators Conference in Ann Arbor to present the Facebook page and speak with study abroad advisors.
Lillie was featured in the fall 2013 Grand Valley Magazine; read it here.