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Alumna helps students with disabilities study abroad

  • woman sitting in computer lab

Posted on January 17, 2017

As soon as she began taking classes at Grand Valley in 2009, Juanita Lillie became involved in campus life, participating in intramural swimming and bowling, and taking yoga classes.

But for Lillie, who was born blind, the most impactful experience was one that no one thought she could do: studying abroad. After a successful trip to Costa Rica as a student, Lillie founded a company that provides resources for other students with disabilities who want to study abroad.

She founded Abroad With Disabilities (AWD) in 2014 after graduating from Grand Valley with a bachelor's degree in Spanish. Lillie was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease.

While she was preparing to study abroad in 2009, she said everyone she talked with was surprised. She realized people with disabilities are told that they should not study abroad. She read article after article about how difficult her experience would be, but nothing that considered her strengths and abilities.

“The biggest barrier I had was talking to others,” Lillie said. “I realized I didn’t have access to other people with disabilities.”

This is where AWD helps. The organization works with students and professionals with disabilities who are pursuing travel abroad by outfitting travelers with the right resources.

Her efforts were recognized locally last fall when the Disability Advocates of Kent County awarded Lillie with the Discover Ability Award.

Nearly 40 travelers have worked with AWD. Lillie said she values the one-on-one connection the organization establishes with the travelers.

“We work hard to create a connection with the people we work with because we want to make sure they don’t feel like they are just a disability,” Lillie said.

-- written by Lucas Escalada, student writer