International Education Fall 2013

Study abroad opens up world for student with vision problem

by Michele Coffill photo by Amanda Pitts

Although an eye disease restricts her vision to the size of a pinhole, Juanita Lillie took in the beauty of Costa Rica while immersing herself in Spanish during a study abroad program.

Lillie, a senior majoring in Spanish, said it was the doubters and her parents who pushed her to participate in a study abroad program  and shes forever grateful to them. Lillie was born with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease, and is legally blind.


Juanita Lillie, a Spanish major, is pictured in the language lab at Mackinac Hall. Born with a degenerative eye disease, Lillie spent a semester studying abroad in Costa Rica.

A few people told me that I shouldnt do it; I shouldnt go by myself, Lillie said. But its the doubters who gave me the courage. She left her family in Coopersville and life on campus to live in Costa Rica for a semester.

Lillie lived in San Pedro with a host family for the winter 2013 semester and took four classes at the Universidad Latina-San Pedro. Her trip was arranged through Grand Valleys Padnos International Center and International Studies Abroad (ISA).

My No. 1 fear was the accessibility of the country, Lillie said. But ISA was very accommodating; everyone at the university was very accommodating.

She explained how RP affects her vision. If you imagine a funnel that is wider at the top then gets narrow, I can see whats in the center of that funnel, Lillie said. She uses an iPad and laptop equipped with a text reader for her Grand Valley courses.

It was no different in Costa Rica. The professors had no problem sending me my assignments on email, she said.

Lillie would like to pursue a career as a medical interpreter and translator. She said her conversational Spanish improved immensely while in Costa Rica. The classes were not that challenging for me. What was challenging was not being able to use English words, she said.

But she quickly adapted, mostly through conversations with her host family, a woman and her mother, whom Lillie called Mom and Grandma. With her host family and friends, Lillie traveled to the countrys rainforest, toured a volcano, visited beaches and flew on a zipline.

During the time I was abroad, my host mom and grandmother were there during every moment and accepted my disability without problems, she said.

Lillie was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and raised in an orphanage. Coopersville residents Russell and Sheryl Lillie adopted her at age 2. At the start of the adoption process, Sheryl and Russell learned that Juanita was blind, but the orphanage also told them she was deaf.

We went to visit her for the first time, and get the paperwork started, and I remember taking a photo of her, Sheryl said. The camera clicked and she turned her head. It was an undiagnosed ear infection that incorrectly led staff members at the orphanage to believe Juanita couldnt hear.

When she arrived in Michigan, Juanita was taken to vision specialists who diagnosed the RP and said she would lose most of her sight by the time she was a teenager.

Russ and I decided we would do everything to make sure she grew up to do things for herself and make sure she was confident, Sheryl said.

Last year, the confident college student told her parents that she wanted to study in Costa Rica for a semester.

Sheryl said her daughter has always been very independent, and she knew she could count on Juanita to ask for assistance at the airport, Costa Rican hotel and university.

That is exactly what Lillie would say to other students who have a disability and are considering studying abroad.

Im so glad I had this experience, she said. My only advice to others would be to do it, and to advocate for yourself.