Fourteen days. Every blink was a reminder that I felt like I had sand in my eyes. Every sign and every face was a blur. My vision came and went, but the bright airport signs were always difficult to read, so hard that I even checked in with the wrong airline (China Eastern instead of China Southern). Luckily, my mistake was discovered before I ended up on the wrong plane.
Every few minutes, I dabbed my eyes as best I could to keep the “gunk” from building up and crusting around my eyelashes. Every morning, I separated my glued-shut eyelids by hand and wondered how much more I could take. I looked and felt like a zombie, and was met with many worried glances from the hundreds of people I crossed paths with over the nearly 10,000 miles I traveled during this time.
Happily, it’s been 15 days since swimming with the kids in Cambodia, and I am nearly back to normal. I saw three doctors in two different countries and took three prescriptions, none of which helped. In the end, the virus took care of itself in its own time.
Although I was still dealing with the eye virus during my four days in Portland, my vision was expanded in so many ways that I could have never imagined before attending this seminar. On the last day, the 30 participants were asked to say one word that summarized our experience at the conference. I did have one word, but won’t limit myself to that here.
Inspired. This word was actually banned by one of our moderators since it is way overused, but I can’t help but include it here. I was inspired by the adults with intellectual disabilities who performed for us and spoke with eloquence about their lives and living with a disability (or a “gift” as one man called it). We had visited PHAME, a local organization that offers classes and performances in the arts for people with disabilities. My eyes were opened to the realization that people with intellectual disabilities have many, many talents that often go unnoticed. You can learn more about PHAME here.
Hopeful. Of the thirty attendees from across the US representing many diverse backgrounds, several were young undergraduate students. They have already accomplished so much, including learning several languages, studying abroad, running nonprofits, organizing conferences, and receiving numerous awards. Each time one of the young people spoke at the seminar, I was left with renewed hope for our future. These students are intelligent, creative, thoughtful and driven to build a more equitable and peaceful world for all of us.
Humbled. Many of our sessions focused on ways to make education more inclusive for marginalized groups. I was humbled to realize that I still have so much to learn in this area. Among the participants and presenters were several people with physical and other disabilities. As I sat and complained about my temporary eye issues, I was humbled to see people living with disabilities that will last a lifetime, and to see them go above and beyond what I have ever done while facing many challenges from mainstream society. I should do less complaining and be more proactive.
I was challenged in so many ways during this seminar and will grow as a result. My thinking was challenged when learning about restorative justice, universal design, and the complexities of addressing the needs of indigenous students, English language learners and refugees. Being on a panel to discuss LGBT and gender issues was both challenging and rewarding. My current challenge is to submit a grant proposal for a project that will address one or more of our seminar topics. This is a great opportunity to fund a project and collaborate with other recipients of State Department exchange programs. The deadline is fast approaching and soon I will be in a refugee camp in Thailand, but I welcome this challenge and only have to think of my experience at the seminar to be motivated to complete this next task.
Thank you to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State for making this seminar and the grant opportunity possible (among many other programs I have participated in). And thank you to World Learning for administering this seminar which was so well-organized and will lead to positive change in many communities across the globe.