“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
There was a time in my life when I aspired to work in Los Angeles and create movies. I went to Savannah College of Art and Design with the intention of studying filmmaking. However, once I started venturing the world and opened my mind in college by choosing to take classes that were different from what I had planned, I learned there was so much more to life than just having a job and earning money. Staying with host families, exchanging different viewpoints about cultures in foreign languages, overcoming challenges due to being in a strange land, taking art history and anthropology courses and above all, doing advocacy work relating to hearing loss were all activities in which I participated that made me pause and think many times about my lifetime goals.
Since I was a little girl, I wanted to live my life by living in different places. I was envious of my grandparents who traveled abroad frequently and shared images of their trips with me. I remember when I pleaded my mother many times to let me go abroad and she always responded by saying, “You’re too young. You have so much of life ahead of you,” or “I worry about you going so far because of your cochlear implants.” I read an article in the American Girl magazine about a girl and her family who left everything behind in America and spent a year traveling abroad. When I read the article, I said, “I want her life.” I read another article in another issue of the American Girl magazine about a girl who was going blind, coincidentally due to retinitis pigmentosa, and was given a gift from her parents to travel the world while she still had vision. The craziest thing is that I read this article in high school, tore the pages out of the magazine and filed it away. I dreamed of creating a movie about her life because I wanted people to know that we’re never too young to see the world and start working on our lifetime goals, and we would never know what life circumstances could bring to us that could make reaching our dreams much more difficult when we’re older. Well, this girl’s story rang so true for me when I just so happened to be diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa too a few years later.
I did finally start achieving my dream when I was 17 years old and took my first overseas trip to France. Then starting at age 19 years old, I traveled abroad every year.
Then at some point when I was in college, someone, I can’t remember who, shared with me an article that was in New York Times, about a deaf man who served in the Peace Corps. His name was Josh Swiller and he worked in Zambia. I thought if this man who was deaf like me can work in a developing country, my deafness should never be an excuse for going abroad and working towards my goals. My longterm career goal eventually changed from being a filmmaker and living in Hollywood to living and working in developing countries and solving problems.
Six years ago, during the summer of going into my junior year in college, when I was in London with my family and one night during dinner, I said, “I want to join in the Peace Corps.” My dad said, “You should consider going to grad school.” My mother’s response was, “As long as you can still have health insurance, you can choose what you want to do.” At this time, the Affordable Healthcare Act has not even been discussed in DC. I did have grad school in mind and had seriously considered pursuing masters in anthropology abroad. However, I didn’t want to go to school just to get a masters. I wanted it to be a meaningful experience that could open up doors and show me how I can make contribution to the world. I was still insistent that joining in the Peace Corps would be the best move because I would be on the field working directly with humans, communicating about cultural differences and social differences and cooperating with them to create a positive change.
Five years ago, when I was heading into senior year in college, I submitted an application to join in the Peace Corps. A month later, I had the interview and learned a few hours after the interview I had been nominated for a technology assignment in a French speaking country in Africa.
Five months later, after having submitted pages worth of medical information, the medical office denied me to serve in the Peace Corps because of my disability. Here is one particular statement they wrote in the letter:
“How will your hearing disability affect the learning of a new language in Peace Corps? You stated that you do not read lips nor understand sign language.”
I was given the option to appeal and while I had moved forward In working on the appeal, I went ahead and applied to grad schools in the UK to pursue a masters in anthropology. Within a week, I heard from one grad school informing me I’d be accepted. I was ecstatic but I’m not going to deny that Peace Corps was still on my mind. Then I quickly learned I was accepted into all schools. I eventually decided that going to grad school was the way go for the time being, and that I would eventually try applying again to the Peace Corps in the future.
After graduating Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelors degree in photography from Savannah College of Art and Design, I took off to the UK to study anthropology at University College London for a year. I had the time of my life as I made close friends with students from all over the world. Our conversations were always about our lifestyle differences and social issues around the world. We traveled together all over the UK. However, while I had very intelligent professors who provided well rounded information about the subject, the masters did not open up doors for me.
When I returned to the US, I took on jobs working at the desk, on the computer all day. I was grateful to have jobs so that I could begin gaining work experiences. I tried to keep an open mind by acknowledging that I was just getting my feet into the real world. However, I was still feeling that I was really not on the path reaching towards my long term career goal which is to be working abroad and solving social issues. As the mission of the organization where I was working recently was about human rights, I spent many hours during break times reading texts created by the organization about social issues. Reading the texts made me feel that I still truly wanted to work directly with humans who were facing social issues.
I also had learned online shortly after I finished school that Peace Corps had just accepted two cochlear implant recipients for the first time in history, and they were just starting their service. Hearing the news felt like a huge punch in my gut. If they can do it, then why can’t I do it too? I was considering reapplying eventually because I still felt so strongly that Peace Corps would provide me the best experiences in working directly with humans in foreign countries. What was keeping me from starting the application process again was figuring out how to peacefully inform my family. While they never really told me outright, I always knew they were really against the idea of their daughter with a disability living and working in a developing country. I knew that I’m an adult and I have every right to make my own decisions. However, I love my parents so dearly that I didn’t want to cause any rifts with them. It was really important to me to have their support when going through the application process.
In September 2012, when I was watching the Democratic National Convention, I saw a tribute film to Ted Kennedy, late US senate from Massachusetts. At the very beginning of the film, Ted said, “For all those who cares has been our concerns, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.” Then I saw what a meaningful career he has enjoyed and the incredible impact he has made on the world by simply doing public services. He showed how being in public service is truly a privileged duty. Hearing the words, “…the hope still lives and the dream shall never die,” gave me another big punch in my gut.
I could no longer live the rest of my life with a big regret. I no longer wanted to live the life knowing that I could have achieved one of my biggest dreams if I were persistent and had fought. A large number of people are able to accomplish their dreams by simply never quitting.
Shortly after the film, without telling anyone, I contacted Peace Corps medical office and explained that I was interested in reapplying but wanted to check into their policy about accepting those with Usher Syndrome, a genetic condition that I have that causes deafness and slow progression of blindness. They responded by saying that I should call them. That email just sat for some time.
One day, just after New Years Day in 2013, I finally broke down in tears and told my mom that I felt my life was going nowhere, and I’ve been seriously considering reapplying for Peace Corps. She was silent for a second and then quietly said, “No.”
“Peace Corps just accepted two cochlear implant recipients in the past year for the first time in history,” I said.
“But you have more issues,” she said.
I then went on to explain to her that both cochlear implant recipients were persistence, and if I had gone all the way through the appeal process, I would have likely been accepted. She was just silent. I knew this was not going to be an easy conversation.
A few weeks later, my mother and I broke into another fight, and I told her that I was upset that she was not being supportive in my long term career goals and wished that she would support my desire to serve in the Peace Corps. I understood that she was just being a mother who loves me and was trying to look after the well-being and safety of her daughter. It’s not uncommon after all for many daughters to have mothers who love them so much and have concerns about Peace Corps. However, I’m not going to deny that this was a very frustrating situation.
She did eventually come to realization that my mind was so set on Peace Corps and begin to support me in the application process.
I submitted my application in March 2013 with a vow that if the medical office said “no,” again, I would fight all the way through. My mom became more supportive than ever by advising me to contact Joe Kennedy III, my congressman whose great uncle founded Peace Corps and who was also a Peace Corps volunteer himself. I decided that I would wait to contact him if the medical office would give me a hard time again. In the meantime, I contacted Mobility International USA, a non profit organization that provides people with disabilities support in studying, volunteering and working abroad and explained my Peace Corps situation and asked them if they had tips for going through the appeal process if necessary. I wanted to be prepared and ready to fight if needed. They responded with a tremendous amount of very helpful information including cases where people with disabilities were denied and won the appeal. I also contacted both cochlear implant recipients who we’re serving at the time for tips, and they both provided me very helpful information.
I was not going to allow a rejection to happen again simply because of my disabilities. While I do believe in setting realistic expectations about how we can lead our lives with disabilities, but I also believe that we should never underestimate our abilities. “Can’t” is likely the one of the most frequent words we, people with disabilities, hear and also a word we hate hearing, but “perseverance” is also likely the favorite word of many of us. I am also a believer in trying. We can never know what we cannot do until we actually do the tasks. We still have a long way to go in educating the society about how well people with disabilities can lead their lives. We have a responsibility to show the world what we are truly capable of doing. We do it just by presenting ourselves doing the tasks that the general society would not realize that we can do.
I finally had the interview a month later, April 2013, and it was the best job interview because I felt so passionate about what I was sharing to the interviewer and hearing from her about the job. When she told me at the end of the interview that I would be nominated for a technology or community development assignment with an early 2014 departure date, I told her, “I want you to be aware that I applied four years ago to serve in the Peace Corps but the medical office denied me because of my disability. They asked me how I communicate because I don’t read lips or sign. They also questioned my vision.” I explained to her what was Usher Syndrome. “Oh wow! I am so glad you told me this. I will make a note to the medical office and make sure they understand that you communicate well,” she said.
“Can you make sure they understand that I can truly function well in day to day life like any other people without disabilities,” I said, “And that I really do speak and hear auditoraly like people who hear normally.”
“Yes. Yes. If there is a problem, I’ll be your advocate,” she said.
A couple weeks later, I finally started the medical review process. I had all forms submitted by end of May.
For the next several months, I heard no news. I finally ran into the person who interviewed me at an event at the end of October and asked her what was going on with my medical review. She said she’d check and get back to me. Two days later, she informed me that the medical office would get in touch with me and my tentative departure date would be pushed back to May. I finally heard from the medical office. They sent me several questions about my cochlear implants. Shortly after I responded, they asked more questions. A conversation between me and the medical office lasted about a month. I finally received pre-clearance in mid-December.
After receiving legal pre-clearance in January, I contacted the placement office asking for an update on my application process. They said that because I did not get medical pre-clearance until December, all spots for spring departure has been filled and so, my tentative departure date was being pushed back again to September, and my nominated assignment has been changed to community health education.
In February, I finally received a placement questionnaire from the placement office. The questionnaire consisted a series of questions that focused on verifying that I understand the living conditions and how to set realistic expectations for the job. Receiving the questionnaire meant I was closer to possibly receiving an invitation. Weeks went by and just when I was almost losing my patience, I finally received an invitation on April 2nd, while vacationing in Santorini. I have been assigned to work in community health education with a focus on women and children in Cameroon.
I was so trilled to learn that it’s a French speaking country, and I can finally put my years of learning French into professional use. When I read about Cameroon being known as the “miniature of Africa” and “oasis of Africa,” having over 100 ethnic groups and being one of the most tolerant countries, and I saw pictures of beautiful landscapes, I became more excited.
However, I am not going to lie. I was so nervous about sharing the news of my country placement to my parents and grandparents. I admit that I had a very tiny hope that I would not be placed in Africa only because I didn’t want to see my parents and grandparents’ losing sleep at night. While I have always recognized that many parts of Africa are truly safe and have a lot of wonderful treasures, my family unfortunately does not see the same way as I do. After my excitement calmed down, I said, “S***! How do I tell my family this news? They’re so not going to be happy.” I immediately contacted a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who recently finished her service in Kenya for tips in telling my family. She shared some great suggestions, as she faced the same situation too. I finally told them the following morning via e-mail. My mother was clearly not thrilled and showed that she is very nervous as her very first response was just a link to a site listing security threats in Cameroon. She sent me another e-mail shortly thereafter saying that she was happy for me but sad for her and also nervous, which was a very reasonable reaction as most parents would hate to see their children move faraway regardless of the circumstances. On the other hand, my grandmother said that while she is nervous, she is cheering for me and fully supporting me and told me that I should do what makes me happy and chase after my dreams. How I love my grandmother dearly!
I had to go through another round of medical screening. I completed all the exams and paperwork within two weeks. On May 8th, the day after my birthday, I received a final medical clearance. I am now in process of preparing to depart in September.