One of the best pieces of advice for study abroad I have ever received is to find a way to incorporate aspects of your life at home into your new life abroad. In my freshman year of college, I joined the international non-profit organization Best Buddies. Best Buddies is a program that helps the integration of people with mental and intellectual disabilities into society by creating work opportunities, encouraging self-advocacy, and facilitating friendships. Over the past three years, my involvement with the Best Buddies program has continued to grow. This semester ACTR presented me with the opportunity to intern with Best Buddies Russia, a fairly new location for the organization with a single office in Moscow.
Interning with Best Buddies Russia has been a rewarding and eye-opening experience. My work has not only challenged and enhanced my Russian language skills, but has also taught me a lot about life and society in Russia. On any given day, it would be rare to meet someone with an intellectual disability on the street or on public transportation. Families will often keep a disabled family member at home and oversee all aspects of their life. The opportunity to make friends and interact with non-family members is usually limited to the few years that the child attends school. Chances are further minimized by the extreme lack of handicap accessible locations available in Russia.
Russian society has only in the past ten years started to become more comfortable acknowledging the presence of people with disabilities. There still exist many bad emotions towards people with disabilities, while many people glaze over the topic or largely underestimate the number of disabled citizens living in Russia. Even the word that refers to someone with a disability can be shocking to a foreigner – инвалид – which is pronounced exactly like the word ‘invalid’.
Fortunately, small but steady change in the Russian mindset and the resources available for people with disabilities is occurring. Despite social and economic challenges, Best Buddies Russia has established programs in two universities and three high schools. The presence and success of these programs is in great thanks to the determination of Best Buddies Russia executive director Denise Roza, her wonderful staff, and gracious donations from sponsors. The program opened its arms to my presence and provided me with a community. My participation in the program often refreshed and maintained my perspectives on what in life is important to me.
Though my time and participation with the program was shorter than I would have liked (study abroad, especially in the fast pace city of Moscow, is an extremely busy time), I am so happy to have had this experience with Best Buddies Russia. This fall I will be president of the Smith College Chapter of Best Buddies. In this leadership role, I plan to use many of the ideas for events, leadership training, and fundraising I have learned here so that I can improve my program back at home. I also plan to share my experiences with Best Buddies Russia with my program, friends, and family in order to raise awareness for those with disabilities. I am extremely thankful to ACTR, Denise Roza and staff at Best Buddies Russia, and the participants in the program for sharing such a unique and delightful study abroad experience.
By: Sarah Tucker
Term: Summer 2012