Shannon Kelly arrived in Australia and already felt doomed to repeat her freshman year.
When she first came to the U. of I., Kelly didn’t get along with her roommate. She struggled to click with friends and questioned her broadcast journalism major. She went home to Elmhurst, Illinois, every weekend.
Not the life Kelly thought she’d create after high school.
The summer before Kelly came to the Urbana-Champaign campus, she said she asked herself, “What would it take for a girl in a wheelchair to travel around the world by herself?”
So Kelly flew to Costa Rica for a three-week volunteer trip, and found traveling in another country in a wheelchair means relying on strangers. It requires advance planning to do anything -- sleeping, eating at restaurants and even bungee jumping.
“It’s a very inaccessible country. They’re trying, but I could not physically go anywhere on my own. But the country was beautiful and I made great friends. I grew as a person and realized that I wanted to do it, regardless of my circumstances,” Kelly said.
Years later, in Australia, Kelly watched as exchange students gathered in fast-formed cliques during orientation. The University of Melbourne campus lacked an accessible gym like the one at Illinois, so Kelly needed to find someone willing to work out with her. Again.
But as she did at the U. of I. by joining Sigma Kappa sorority, Kelly eventually found her way. She connected with students at the residence hall where she stayed at the University of Melbourne. She went parasailing in New Zealand and saw the Great Barrier Reef.
By the time she graduated from the U. of I. in May 2016 with a bachelor of science degree in broadcast journalism, Kelly had traveled on four separate study abroad trips: South Africa, Sweden, Australia, and Hong Kong and Taiwan. For her trip to Sweden, Kelly received the Enabled Abroad scholarship, which aims to encourage Illinois undergraduates with disabilities to travel by helping cover the cost of aides and other accommodations.
Kelly said her passion for study abroad really started with a service-learning trip to Cape Town, South Africa, led by human development and family studies teaching associate Jan Brooks. Kelly, who worked out three times a week at the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) facility, learned about Brooks’ trip from one of the facility’s physical therapists.
“She knew about this study abroad program that was trying to include students with disabilities for the first time, this service-learning trip to Cape Town, South Africa,” Kelly said.
Although Brooks had offered the three-week trip to South Africa since the 2007-08 school year, it was the first time Brooks specifically planned a trip to include students with disabilities. She moved the trip to May and June when more accessible work sites, such as the school where Kelly spent her time, were open.
“The fact that she spent so much time upfront worrying about accessibility made the trip go so much smoother,” Kelly said of Brooks. “I didn’t really have to worry about accommodations as much as I would have if she didn’t do all that work. That was really the first trip I did here – it kind of led to my love for study abroad.”
Brooks said she had been thinking about planning for a specific, accessible-friendly trip for two years. After a 2013 study abroad trip to Cape Town, she extended her stay by a week to check out restaurants, housing and tourism sites to ensure students would be able to access them. She learned quickly that calling something wheelchair-friendly doesn’t mean it translates to accessibility by U.S. standards.
“Wheelchairs were my biggest concern, simply because the city of Cape Town is built into a mountain,” said Brooks, who compared the city to San Francisco. “Nothing is very level. There are no curb cuts anywhere except in the wealthy tourist sector – and before World Cup 2010, even those weren’t there.”
Twelve students traveled with Brooks during her 2013 service-learning trip to South Africa, three of whom were students with disabilities and two who used wheelchairs.
The goal of the trip remained the same, Brooks said. All students took a predeparture course on the history and culture of South Africa, then spent two weeks completely immersed in the community of Cape Town by volunteering at women’s shelters, hospitals, orphanages and schools.
Kelly volunteered at Tembaletu, a K-12 school for students with physical and learning disabilities.
“That was very eye-opening because that could be me. If I lived in South Africa, I could be going to that school,” Kelly said.
Brooks said she also had to think differently about how the students would participate with one another during the trip. She initially arranged for her daughter, who lives in Cape Town, to drive the students with wheelchairs in a vehicle more accessible than a van. But Brooks said Kelly would crawl up the steps to the van so that she could enjoy camaraderie with the rest of the group instead of riding in a separate car.
Brooks wanted to make sure her students didn’t feel set apart just because they required the use of a wheelchair, she said, whether it involved choosing historical tourist sites they’d visit or selecting a different safari park tour with more accessible vehicles.
“I was committed that they didn’t have to feel the difference, that they were full participants,” Brooks said.
Brooks said she plans to offer a similar trip next spring. Several students with disabilities, including wheelchair athlete and upcoming U.S. Paralympics competitor Chelsea McClammer, have expressed interest in applying.
When she thought about graduating from Illinois, Kelly said she’d miss being five minutes away from all of her friends and the opportunities to travel. She planned to spend her summer working for Spirit Cultural Exchange in Oak Park, Illinois, where she would coordinate jobs and internships for international students coming to the U.S.
“I think every student should study abroad if they can,” Brooks said.” There are so many programs out there that students should explore those and see what fits them best. The goal in study abroad is to help students solidify their own identity.”
Kelly also wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about her perspective on inclusive study abroad trips, which you can read here.