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Studying Abroad

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Julie Sanfaçon lives in Quebec City, and is currently participating in an internship in Mali, West Africa, as part of a course in international cooperation where she will be promoting education for blind children and teenagers through the Union Malienne des Aveugles, a West African blindness agency based in Bamako, Mali's capital.

From September 1, 2001 to June 21 2002, I have been a student at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH) and an English and French instructor.

I came to Moscow chiefly for language-learning requirements. It was essential to immerse myself in a Russian-speaking environment to learn the language properly. Few cities could be better for learning Russian than Moscow, a city were people on the street, in markets and at university speak Russian only. My motivations were also strongly related to a desire to learn more about Russia's current state of affairs and to have a glimpse of life in a country that is at times very different from Canada.

Every person wishing to study abroad is motivated by different elements. Students in education may want to immerse themselves in the language they will teach; MBA students may spent a year abroad as part of their curriculum and graduate students may find it not only necessary but very enriching to access rare documents in foreign libraries and to work in international research centres. What is certain is that broadening one's horizons through international education is a great academic, professional and personal experience.

I spent two academic years abroad: one in Moscow, at the RSUH (2001-2002), and one in Edinburgh, at Heriot-Watt University (1999-2000). I am the first legally blind student to take Russian language classes at the RSUH.

My study project in Scotland is also a novelty because of the considerable efforts I made to achieve it. Since I started planning my projects, I realised that it is now more affordable to study abroad. Many faculties have set up exchange projects and bilateral agreements with universities abroad and have made flexible arrangements aiming at lessening the burden of high tuition fees imposed on international students. When I studied in Scotland I attended lectures at Heriot-Watt University and paid tuition fees at Laval University, my home university, instead of paying international student tuition fees at Heriot-Watt, which can be as high as $10.000 per year.

It is also easier for disabled students to adapt to their new surroundings thanks to the help of friendly and competent staff members working in disability offices and in associations for disabled students around the world.

Heriot-Watt University hosts a fantastic disability office and, while I was in Russia, I visited a library, a computer centre and a museum for the blind and the visually impaired run by the All-Russia Association of the Blind.

I was very impressed by the high quality of the equipment available for students and I was happy to learn that both Russian and foreign students use these facilities.

Looking back, I realise that my life would have been very different if I had stayed in Quebec.

Studying abroad is an extraordinary experience that enabled me to learn foreign languages, gain international experience and meet exciting challenges. I also became aware that these benefits are not always readily accessible to blind and visually impaired students.

I believe that they may still be deterred from studying abroad because many problems need to be solved before their departure and that few institutions are fully equipped to assist them adequately. This was certainly the case when I left for Scotland. Planning my study project was challenging work that required frequent contacts with various organizations and ministries to find essential support. I undertook such tasks as writing up budgets and proposals, raising funds, finding accessible accommodation, handling technical details and having specialized computer equipment shipped to Scotland.

I knew that I would succeed if I tried hard enough. However, facing many obstacles took its toll on my motivation.

One obstacle almost jeopardized my study project in Scotland. It clarifies what I mean when I say that few institutions are fully equipped to assist disabled persons adequately when they want to study abroad. I need a closed-circuit television (CCTV) and specialized computer equipment to study and since Heriot-Watt University could not provide me with this equipment, I had to ship in my own CCTV and computer.

No ministry or institution would help me pay air cargo fees, which were surprisingly high. I was the first disabled student in Quebec to ship specialized equipment abroad for academic reasons and no one knew what to do with such a request. Because of a lack of funds, I left for Edinburgh without my equipment. Later on, I received last-minute help from the Ministry of Education, which enabled me to ship in my equipment later on.

More guidance and support from ministries, colleges, universities and organizations for the blind and the visually impaired is needed to make international studies truly accessible. Home universities must contact host universities to ensure that adequate means are put forth to assist disabled students and professors at host universities must be aware of special needs to be met in the classroom.

Disability offices at home universities must help students to write up budgets, find funds to cover extra fees relating to their disability, find accessible accommodation and handle technical details regarding their special equipment (voltage, adaptors, etc.). I sincerely hope that other blind and visually impaired students will undertake such projects.

I also encourage students to get support and guidance from institutes and foundations for the blind and the visually impaired. Their support helped me greatly. Such collaborations must continue to enable other persons with disabilities to study abroad.

The advice I can give to blind and visually impaired persons who want to study abroad is to plan their projects ahead and get their local student association, disability office and disability centre involved in the planning of their project.

I also suggest that these students write articles on their experiences and submit them to newspapers, magazines and to organisations such as the National Federation of the Blind. By writing on their experiences abroad, they can inspire other students and educate the general population by showing that, with motivation and adequate support, everyone can study abroad.