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Overseas Experience Abroad Leads to Activism at Home

By Shannon Cun Lin Hy

When I wanted to study in the U.K. after my freshman year of college my adviser directed me to Mobility International USA, a nonprofit organization promoting travel abroad for people with disabilities.

After discovering that English universities were for the most part accessible, I again went to the education abroad office, this time to choose a program. I chose Lancaster Univ. because it is located in a small town and has a good program in Culture and Communications, equivalent to Mass Communications at UC Berkeley, where I was studying.

Once Lancaster admitted me, I kept in touch through emails with the special needs adviser and the North American officer for Lancaster Univ. After months of preparations, I was ready to board the plane.

Student life at Lancaster was very different from Berkeley’s. It was a shock to have nine pubs inside the university (one across from my room), to spend fewer hours in classes, and to see so few students actually studying. Most of the British students seemed to socialize in pubs and nightclubs every night. To be a full participant in this new culture I joined the clubs, wrote for the University’s newspaper, and ran for office. But because I could not balance classes and activities, I had to cram a year’s worth of work into one month during finals. I realized that the British students knew the system better than I did; they were able to do well even though they never seemed to study.

So my strongest advice for study abroad students is to pace yourself. The system cannot be absorbed overnight and it is easy to lose yourself in this new world.

Although Lancaster was a wheelchair-friendly environment, accessible public transportation was scarce. Along with British students with disabilities, I was confined to campus because the town bus was not wheelchair accessible. In order to get to town, we had to pay for taxis. When I brought up the issue with the Special Needs Adviser, she sympathized with our frustration but lacked authority to make any changes. While the British students with disabilities seemed to accept this unfairness, I organized meetings with administrators, the student body, and a member of Parliament to express our need for equal access.

I asked them to sit in a wheelchair for a day and follow me around campus to understand the physical barriers of narrow doors and stairs on the buses. Soon, the British students with disabilities also became more active. Together we brought disability awareness to officials; as a result, the bus company finally bought an accessible bus for students to use in the following year. Through the exchange of cultural ideas, we were able to achieve equal access.

When I traveled around Europe during my break from Lancaster, bus drivers stopped me from getting on buses and architectural barriers excluded me from public toilets. These experiences motivated me to advocate for basic rights for people with disabilities in other countries. Back home, I volunteered with Mobility International as a trainer to encourage people with disabilities to study and travel abroad. I also interned at the Disability Rights Section at the Department of Justice in Washington, where I learned more about the rights of people with disabilities provided by laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Studying abroad literally opened a world of possibilities for me. I list the skills I gained from my activities at Lancaster in my resume, and prospective employers have been impressed with my proven abilities to adapt to and work in foreign environments.

Contacts: Lancaster Univ., www.lancs.ac.uk. Mobility International USA, P.O. Box 10767, Eugene, OR 97440; 541-343-1284; www.miusa.org.

SHANNON CUN LIN HY received a BA in Mass Communications from UC Berkeley and has applied to law school to become a disability rights attorney. She lives in Los Angeles.

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