Alumni Spotlight: Hannah Chu


Hannah is a Korean-American wheelchair user from Florida. She's a spontaneous adventurer, professional foodie, and a lover of laughter. After graduating from the University of Central Florida (UCF) with a degree in Health Administration, she started working full-time, traveling, and self-taught herself Japanese.

Why did you choose this program?

As a wheelchair user, I decided to go beyond expectations and take a semester long study abroad trip to Tokyo, Japan. Not to mention, this was also a fun celebratory way to finish off my college career.

I was learning Japanese through self-study, and I've always heard that Japan is not only one of the safest places to live, but also one of the most wheelchair accessible (i.e. transportation, elevators). Through this program, I was able to travel to a foreign country, experience a new educational system, learn about the Japanese culture and language, and meet new friends.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) staff did SO much for me to ensure I'd have an unforgettable first travel/study abroad experience! They were ensuring that I would be able to participate in all the excursions in the program (i.e. making sure all the locations were wheel-chair accessible, reliable transportation was provided, and if locations were not accessible I would still be able to participate).

Not only did they help accommodate the classroom and dorm room, they even spoke with my professors, nearby restaurants, convenience store staff, etc. to advise of my attendance at Sophia University, and to be on the lookout for me in case I ever needed help.

They took precautions on rainy days for me, and taught me how to use the rail systems. And to be quite frank, I did so little organization on my part while CIEE did so many behind the scenes work for me to ensure that my stay in Japan was as pleasant as could be.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

For me specifically, I would say research - A LOT. I had to look for a program that was not only accommodating to my needs, but also had experience working with handicapped students.

For example, I read blogs written by wheelchair users who have studied abroad before, and researched laws similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in foreign countries and how they applied to the disabled population, and jotted down accessible tourist locations.

During my first interview with CIEE, the staff assured me that I was not their first wheelchair user, and they thought of accommodations that would be necessary that have never crossed my mind before, like ensuring I would be able to utilize the washer and dryer in the dorm room.

After completing the research and paperwork, here are some extra tips upon arrival: First, don't be afraid, just be yourself! And be involved as much as you can. Don't spend so much time cooped up in your dorm room. Go out, explore! And meet new people! Who knows who you might meet? Who knows who you might inspire?

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

Since this was a short-term study abroad program, I had class everyday, and lots of homework and studying to do. But despite the rigorous education course, I'd explore Tokyo during the nighttime and on the weekends.

I made lots of new friends while there and we'd all utilize Japan's rail system, and the taxis to get around. For taxis, my friends would help fold my wheelchair and toss it into the back of the trunk. Together we'd discover a new restaurant, a summer festival, a different night club, and of course - shopping malls.

Please note, some restaurants were not as wheelchair accessible so you'd either have two choices: 1) find a new restaurant (that what seemed to be the usual choice for the locals that were wheelchair users) which was not a bad option considering everything in Japan tasted so good, or 2) your friends (or even complete strangers) would carry you and your wheelchair up/down the stairs.

The second option usually happened way too often than what I am normally comfortable with, but I was so blessed to have met people with hearts of gold.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?

Your worst nightmare is your wheelchair not working - at least mine is. Whether it is a battery needing to be charged, or a flat tire, it's the WORST feeling ever. It feels as if you were losing your independence and freedom.

That being said, during our Tokyo scavenger hunt my worst nightmare happened - my wheelchair decided to stop all of a sudden. [Insert panicking here]. But have no fear! Don't panic. After this occurrence, I learned that problems will occur during your trip. And that's OK! Don't be afraid, cause you won't be alone.

The CIEE came to my rescue and we were able to have my chair up and running again. To my surprise, there was an office in Tokyo for my wheelchair who not only walked us through repair, but offered to come to our location to check the chair! Not to be cliche or anything, but when there's a will there's a way!