Each individual’s exchange year is unique, but at its core it is a year of personal growth and learning. You can never predict the outcome of your exchange year, yet one thing is certain – you will leave with much more than you came with. This was just the case for FLEX alumna Silva Bisofa ’17 from Liepaja, Latvia, who spent her FLEX year in Albuquerque, New Mexico. During her time there she gained new perspectives about inclusive education.

Silva attended the V. Sue Cleveland High School, which had a program designed for students with disabilities where coursework was adapted to individual needs and abilities to learn. Her first instance of experiencing this inclusive educational approach was during a piano class.  Silva recalls, “There was a student who was in a wheelchair in my piano class.  In Latvia people with disabilities were not included in my classes. It made me wonder why there is this separation in my classes back home.”

Another instance which taught her about inclusivity was during her time on her school’s dance team. The captain of the team had Down Syndrome.  It did not stop her from leading the team. She always cheered on her teammates and was extremely supportive, not just on the dance team, but in every facet of her life. Seeing someone with a disability being included and in a leadership position was a new lesson for her, saying that “This taught me that people are not defined by their disabilities, there is so much more that defines who we are as individuals and its often overlooked.”

After returning home from her exchange year, Silva would often notice situations in her school, community, and in the media where people with disabilities were treated differently. Silvia notes, (It seems to me, that) “The best way to help promote inclusivity in Latvia is through the sharing of knowledge. That is why it is important for exchange program alumni like me to take the initiative and educate others by engaging their local community and including people with disabilities in all aspects of life.”

Since her FLEX experience Silva has gone on to become the Executive Director of the Latvian First Aid Union, which helps vulnerable populations within the community, including people disabilities. In this role her priority is for everyone to receive equal treatment and the support they need. She adds that “The work is hard, but also fulfilling, on daily basis we still see a lack of inclusivity. There are still many barriers that people with disabilities face, but I am hopeful,  because the more we address these issues, the more likely it is that we will see a positive change!”

Written by Karina Vintere ‘16 (Ventspils, Latvia/Ruidoso, NM)

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