Giselle Nissenbaum ’21, psychology major, sailed on Semester at Sea in fall 2019.
It is amazing what kind of thinking and self-reflection happens when you pluck yourself out of your world and escape to a ship in the middle of the ocean (Semester at Sea) with nothing but yourself, your past, and your thoughts toward it. I’ve always been open and honest about my journey since losing my hearing at 10 years old. I even spoke about it in front of thousands within the Chapman community during Orientation week’s “We Are Chapman” event. Even so, I had no idea how much insecurity I still grappled with surrounding the loss of my hearing. Growing up, I was privileged enough to live in a family that raised me by the code of “you’re not disabled, just differently-abled.” I was a diligent student, a competitive dancer, and worked at a crisis/suicide hotline. But choosing to study abroad added a deeper level of meaning to this code. In order to do well while abroad, it required a tremendous amount of assurance and self-reliance as an individual with a disability to responsibly travel to 12 countries. It forged a surge of self-growth. I had to recognize that despite the combined challenges of a language barrier and my hearing loss, I was gifted with opportunities to develop new conversational skills and ways of connecting with others. I had to acquire the confidence to advocate for myself in an array of different cultural contexts. It proved to be informative and an incredibly valuable asset to tackle the daily challenge of conversing as a deaf individual in a hearing world. I needed to have self-confidence in how I communicate to assess what kind of support, tools, and resources I needed to help me thrive the way I want to.
My experience with Semester at Sea involved a shipboard community filled with students eager to learn different identities, cultures, stories, and perspectives. The students and faculty who participate in this 10 to 12-nation, educational journey, value diversity of people. Everyone is eager to learn new cultures through immersion and exposing themselves to a variety of global identities. The love, empathy, and patience I felt abroad reflect how inclusive, collaborative, and progressive the culture are among those who are eager/embrace education through travel. The same can be said for so many other abroad programs whose foundation of education comes from diverse learning. As a student with a disability, this was evident in the strong support system and endless resources at my disposal, as everyone was willing and curious to learn from each other and to gift themselves the unique perspectives of individuals that they had encountered.
From the start of my journey abroad, it was evident that many cultures provide disability access in different ways. Learning about what types of accommodation are typically provided in your host country, or in my case, a ship in the middle of the ocean is vital to your success while abroad. Be patient with yourself and with others. It is so important that any students with disabilities that attend an abroad program be their own best advocate. No one can read your mind or readily identify your needs, nor can anyone know how you feel if you don’t express it in the first place. Even if something seems impossible, communication and transparency are essential…take it from me. I never would have dreamed that Semester at Sea would be willing to hire a faculty member for my sake. They hired a transcriber to board the ship and embark on a journey for four months, just to attend each of my classes (even field classes), and transcribe what was being said in class in real-time. I never thought that would be doable, but because I made sure the faculty knew that I was deaf and advised them exactly how I communicate and function, I was fortunate that the program was able to offer this to me.
Another crucial recommendation: do not wait until you arrive, whether on a ship or in a different country, to ask for what you need. Disclose your disability or other needs to faculty early so appropriate arrangements and accommodations can be made in advance. Make sure everything is planned and confirmed ahead of time, as well as reviewed by Chapman before you depart. Then you can focus on savoring the experience of a lifetime instead of stressing over disability accommodations that could have been figured out well prior to arrival. It was so relieving getting on the ship and focusing on all the normal priorities like making friends and getting used to a huge change in routine. Instead of hesitantly asking for accommodations as if it’s a privilege, I learned to politely assert my needs. I became my own advocate and best friend; a trait and gift that students often gain while traveling abroad. Along with my own journey of learning to embrace myself, I couldn’t have asked for a more nourishing and encouraging environment to learn this lesson.