Student with visual impairment studies in Costa Rica

Juanita Lillie is pictured in Costa Rica, where she spent a semester participating in a study abroad program.
Juanita Lillie is pictured in Costa Rica, where she spent a semester participating in a study abroad program.
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Juanita 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 she's forever grateful to them.

Born with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease, Lillie is legally blind. She left her home in Coopersville and Grand Valley’s campus to live in Costa Rica for a semester.

“A few people told me that I shouldn’t do it; I shouldn’t go by myself,” Lillie said. “But it’s the doubters who gave me the courage.”

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 Valley’s Padnos International Center and International Studies Abroad.

“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 what’s 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.”

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 country’s 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 Bogata, Colombia, and left at an orphanage. Coopersville residents Russell and Sheryl Lillie adopted her at age 2. Lillie said they always pushed her to be adventurous.

“My parents support everything I do, and they know I advocate for myself,” she said. “They were nervous about me going, but they knew I would speak up for myself if I needed something.”