By Gureni Lukwaro
Imagine climbing alone onto a flight in your home city of Cordoba, Argentina. Everything is dark: you cannot see a thing. Perhaps you listen to movies, or maybe to music, and you chat a bit with the mysterious individual sitting next to you. Eventually, after travelling for about 16 hours, you arrive into Terminal 1 of Dubai International Airport. Still unable to see your surroundings, you make your way off the plane and into the hustle and bustle of the airport. You hear a female voice calling your name, and a friendly stranger takes you by the elbow and guides you through the crowds, and eventually through Passport Control. You describe your suitcases to the greeter, and eventually you’ve collected everything. Now, you make your way through customs, and the jackhammer noises and stifling heat to the Marhaba Greeting Reception, where you meet Linda and Rick Angell, AUS representatives who are picking you up and delivering you to your new study abroad adventure at American University of Sharjah (AUS).
Meet Natale Antonel, the first-ever Argentinian exchange student to study abroad at AUS. Although his English is very good and he is auditing an Arabic language class, Natale’s primary language is Spanish. Nothing stops Natale, however.
“I decided that I wanted to study abroad but the problem was that nobody else thought it was a good idea. I knew that they meant well, but almost everyone at my university and International Student Exchange Program (ISEP) officials discouraged me to go,” said Natale, who is finishing his international relations degree at Universidad Catholica de Cordoba. “But I have one character flaw: I am stubborn. So the more they discouraged me, the more I was determined to go, and eventually with the help of one of my professors, I got approved to study abroad for one semester.”
Natale Plays Paintball with IXO Students, November 2013
“By that time I had already chosen AUS for my study abroad. I did extensive research online, visiting websites, blogs and talking to other students who have done the exchange program and I came to the conclusion that AUS was the place I wanted to come to, and here I am,” said Natale.
Natale said he was pleasantly surprised at the reception he received from AUS. “Everyone I dealt with was very welcoming, kind and helpful. Whereas in Argentina I had to fight and even appeal my application to Washington to get approved to come here, when I got in touch with AUS, the only thing they asked me was ‘You are blind and you want to come to AUS? How can we help you?’ So we talked a lot on Skype as they helped me fill out all the necessary forms and prepared me for my study abroad experience.”
Natale Jumps from Top of Dhow in Musandam, November 2013
“People here are very kind and helpful. I remember the first night I got here, that was on Wednesday, September 4, 2013. Even though the university has an airport pick up service, Dr. Angell [Director, AUS International Exchange Office] and her husband came to pick me up at the airport. They didn’t have to, but they did. I also remember when I got to the dorm, the dorm supervisor made every effort to carefully show me how to locate my room, and spent a lot of time to help me settle in. He made sure I knew my way around the room and the hallway. He even gave me his mobile phone to make an international call to notify my parents that I had arrived safely and he wouldn’t accept any payment for it,” said Natale.
Abdelhadi Hassan, the dormitory supervisor who welcomed Natale to AUS Residential Halls said, “Our main objective is always to provide a comfortable and safe environment for the resident student. With regards to Natale’s case, it was the first time we came across a special needs student, but we dealt with it as we would in any case where a residing student requires assistance to settle in. It is part of my role to give the residents all the required information about dorms and the available facilities. It is important to stress that residential halls staff are well trained, qualified and experienced to take the right steps and do their best in helping accommodate all kinds of students as much as possible within the available facilities.”
Natale’s experience at AUS was enriched by other exchange students who bonded well with him. One of the exchange students switched rooms to share a room with Natale. Others exchange students spent extra time during outings to make sure he heard the descriptions posted on museum displays. Other AUS students and members of AUS community went out of their way to direct Natale to his classrooms, various AUS restaurants and shops, and to other great destinations throughout the region.
Natale and Zofia at Sharjah Bakery
In his short time at AUS, Natale has travelled to India for Eid holidays; snorkeled, and jumped off the upper level of a Dhow into the warm salt waters of the Gulf of Oman during an International Exchange Office outing to the Musandam Peninsula; played paintball at the Sharjah Golf and Shooting Club after enjoying an enormous Thanksgiving Dinner; and he has taken full advantage of every opportunity for adventure.
To help Natale succeed academically at AUS, Dr. Mehvash Ali, Director of the Academic Support Center, met with him during his first week at AUS to establish a Disability Accommodation Contract, which helped to create a “level playing field” academically within his classes.
“To support the university’s commitment to diversity, it is important that AUS empower our students who have disabilities. The Academic Support Center at AUS offers students with documented disabilities academic accommodations so that they can have equal access to educational opportunities at AUS. We work with all academic programs on campus to coordinate accommodations. We also work with the Office of Enrollment Management and International Exchange Office to ensure that the students who are planning on attending AUS have clear expectations about the types of resources we can offer them. We hope that AUS will continue to move towards providing greater accessibility especially when it comes to physical access to campus,” said Dr. Ali.
“Having Natale in class was a true pleasure. He brings a level of maturity to the class which is refreshing; moreover he is extremely well informed, diligent and takes any discussion to another level. This in some ways ensures, I would even say, forced other students to raise their game to match him. More importantly his good humor and extraordinary sanguinity is an inspiration to everyone. I wish Natale the very best for a bright future,” said Dr. Ravindran Sriramachandran, Assistant Professor of International Studies, who taught Natale two courses at AUS.
Reflecting on his time at AUS, Natale says he came to AUS to study abroad and to learn Arabic, but he got much more than that. “I really, really love it here. Here I have met great people, I have eaten good foods, I have visited lots of places and I have experienced many adventures. I will definitely recommend AUS to anyone looking to study abroad. And I would definitely love to come back and work in the region.”
Contemplating on Natale’s time at AUS, Dr. Angell said, “It is so easy to take basic things for granted in our lives, such as our ability to see. It is also easy to complain about minor inconveniences and challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis. We may be easily dissuaded from trying new things because we fear them, or because we may feel intimidated. Natale’s drive and determination to make the very most of every new experience, even in the face of his visual disability, has been a huge inspiration this semester. We can all learn a lot from his ‘can-do’ attitude.”
Gureni Lukwaro is a Writer, Editor and Social Media Specialist at the American University of Sharjah.