When I stepped off a 14-hour flight into the blinking winter sun of Santiago, Chile, I had no clue what I would find. Throughout college, where I study Disability Studies and pre-medicine, I had worked hard to plan for some free time during my study abroad semester where I could really branch out and try new things. Little did I know, that it would be in Chile where I would find the inspiration I was looking for to spearhead my life after graduation.

Maddie Fowler, Chile

Alone and hesitant of my language skills at the beginning of my semester abroad, I sought community in an extracurricular I had done in high school but never had the chance to try in college—the Special Olympics. Through the Special Olympics Medical Team, I began to shadow the doctor of a home for people with disabilities. I noticed how she acknowledged the individual in each patient. Residents of the home would come up to embrace her while we rounded, she would greet them by name and challenge them to a game of wheelchair basketball during her lunchbreak. I saw in her the kind of doctor that I hope to become.

But amidst the euphoria of working with a patient population I really connected with, my mentor also told me of the health disparities facing people with disabilities in Santiago. She told of how residents sent to the busy public hospitals were often seen as a burden on limited medical resources and sometimes returned with more diseases than they left with. Recognizing these attitudes from my own studies and experience in the U.S., I felt called to search for a career path where I could address these important issues in both countries.

I began searching for ways to return to Chile, to bridge the knowledge of our two countries for the progress of both. The IFSA staff in Santiago helped connect me to professors and mentors in my universities who were experts in the field of disability justice and health, and gave me all the resources I needed to establish a strong mentorship relationship with them. Thanks to this mentorship connection, I have been able to design a research study about disability and health, and I plan to conduct this research through grant funds in the years after my graduation. This research project has completely clarified how I want to approach my career in the future and opened up a whole new path for me.

After my time of career discernment during my study abroad, my goal is to pursue both medicine and Disability Studies in an MD/PhD program. I will strive to make a difference both in the personal lives of my patients and the medical system as a whole. I hope to pursue my professional passion through continued international collaboration, particularly in Latin America. This international connection would not have been possible if not for my time abroad.

Thanks to my inspiration during my semester with IFSA, I hope to advance my capacity to transform our health systems into places where people with disabilities can face their challenges with pride. In terms of my career advancement, I have come to realize that the international, intercultural exposure I received from my semester abroad was one of the most foundational aspects of my future career vision.

Maddie Fowler is a Disability Studies and Socially Just Medicine major at Duke University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Chilean Universities Program in Santiago in Fall 2019.