Exploring inclusion in Serbia

CMU students volunteer at schools for people with disabilities while studying abroad

| Author: ​Jeff Johnston

Thirteen students in recreation, parks and leisure services administration were the first from Central Michigan University to attend a three-week, faculty-led study abroad trip to Serbia, Croatia and Romania in early June to learn about programs for individuals with disabilities.

Led by Shay Dawson, College of Education and Human Services faculty member, CMU students explored disability services in Serbia at government-supervised children's homes and adult programs. The students compared similarities and differences in rehabilitation techniques for individuals with disabilities in Serbia and the United States.

"I hope the students have learned that there is much to gain when we step out of our own culture and look at the world though a different lens," said Dawson, whose research areas include support programs for youth and families impacted by chronic illness and disability.

International interactions

The CMU group spent several days at the Special Education and Rehabilitation program at the University of Belgrade and the Milan Petrović School in Novi Sad, working with young adult campers who have intellectual disabilities. They facilitated sports and recreation activities, cooked with clients, and enjoyed karaoke.

The students were most excited to work with different people and experience a new culture.

For CMU seniors Emily Siroonian and Delaney Eckstein, the favorite part of the trip was working at Camp Čenej at the Milan Petrović School. The group spent most of their time there and facilitated soccer, painting, karaoke and more.

"Recreation is important for people to express themselves in a healthy way," Eckstein said.

The group interacted individually with clients and improved their facilitation skills. Despite language barriers, the students found ways to communicate with the clients beyond words.

"A woman with Down syndrome had a full conversation with me speaking mainly in Serbian, using hand gestures and pictures to aid in my understanding," Siroonian said. "My interactions with the clients will stick with me for years to come."

While in Serbia, Sarah Miller, a senior honors student at CMU, helped present research on an equine-assisted therapy intervention for clients with autism. The intervention was tested in Serbia and the United States. As part of her honors capstone project, Miller presented with Dawson, professors from the University of Novi Sad and Temple University in Philadelphia, and a doctoral student from Indiana University.

A new worldview

Dawson said his students came back not only as better world travelers, but with more leadership skills and greater confidence.

"You grow the most when you're out of your comfort zone. That's why these trips are so valuable," Dawson said.

The trip encouraged the students to be more understanding of different cultures and beliefs while deeply exploring their own.

Siroonian wants to continue improving her nonverbal communication skills at CMU and in her career. Eckstein plans to implement lessons she learned about advocacy and therapeutic techniques.

"This experience illustrates that despite our many differences we all share a common humanity. Once we understand this, it is much easier to bridge the gap between our differences," Eckstein said.

Written by Rachael Thomas, CMU University Communications intern

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