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Exchange student even though you have a birth defect?

Difficulty breathing, bad colour and coordination results in a birth defect. In my case, a celebral palsy damage that gives me trouble talking, keeping balance and coordinate. Did it prevent me from taking a step closer the world and become an exchange student? The answer is NO! I’m going to tell my story, the journey of my life, how I managed to go through a year of exchange despite from my disability.

The 17th of August 2005 was the day. The little helpless girl, who had trouble walking and for so long needed help tying her shoes, was going out in the wide world. In November 2004 I got the idea that seemed completely stupid in many people’s eyes. I was going to try my wing and go to America as an exchange student. With tears in my eyes, I said goodbye to my family at Arlanda airport, was I really ready?

After many hours of traveling I finally arrived at the airport in Burlington, Vermont. I was welcomed by my hostfamily, a Norwegian student which I had talked to on-line prior to my departure and my organization representative. They didn’t know more about my disability than what I’d written in my application. “I stutter a little, but I don’t see it as a problem”

My hostfamily and i
My hostfamily and I.

It’s the will that decides what you can and can not do, the disability doesn’t matter! All right, there are a few things I can’t do. For example stand on one leg for more than 2 seconds or go by bike because of my bad balance, but there is other things. And also, it wouldn’t be appropriate to work at a phone switchboard, but there’s other jobs.

Before I went to the US, I knew it would be tough. I knew I was going to miss home. But I went! Why? I’ve been a fighter ever since I decided to not give up my breath when I was born!

My mother wrote my hostmom an e-mail and told her about my complicated birth so they would understand. I remember clearly when she read the letter from mom. I was in the living room, and when she finished reading she came into the room, gave me a big hug and said: “You are a fighter”.

"My hostfamily supported me to 150 % in every situation during the year. They saw my personality, not my disability."

In school, small notes were sent out to all my teachers, by e-mail, to tell them about my disability. Everything worked great, although I found it difficult to make friends during the year. A common missunderstanding by other students was that I had trouble with my English because of my stuttering. I had friends, but not many.


As I predicted, I was homesick during the year. Some days could be horrible! Afterwards, I don’t beleive that the reason of all of it was “missing home”. I think it was more like an independence process that was very hard for me. In America I didn’t have my mothers shoulder to cry on. I wasn’t at home in my safe village, where everyone knows my story. I was out in the big world now, and I had to stand on my own legs. Fortunately the wonderful people around me supported me through this process.

My hero - Tom Gibson

Most supportive, was my guidance counselor Tom Gibson. When I first saw his name on my placement form I thought: “Oh, that name looks scary” but after meeting him I discovered a great person who became my coach and my best friend.When I felt down in school I was welcome to his office and even if he had a thousand other things to do he never seemed stressed. I learned so much from this person. Like my hostfamily, he saw my personality and not my disability. He helped my build my self-confidence enormously and made me realize I was going to make it through my year. I have to admit that there were times I strongly disagreed on that! Me and Tom are still in touch and he will always be a big part of my life. At one occasion where I told him I didn’t have any friends (which wasn’t exactly true) because of my stuttering he organized a meeting with the school’s speech therapist. I saw her regularly during th 2nd semester. I learned a lot and got tons of support from her.

Tom and me
My guidance counselor Tom Gibson and I.

My speach infront of the entire faculty

By the end of my year were the exchange students at our school (me and three boys from South America) asked i to talk about our years on the staff meeting. When they asked me, I became really nervous but I thought; If the exchange students are asked to speak all of them should do it! Not three out of four! I’m doing this! Win or lose! With a manuscript that I’d made an hour prior to the meeting ( I didn’t get more time to prepare) that I hardly looked at, I spoke in front of the entire faculty of about 100 people and to my big surprise got them to laugh twice! I was extremely proud of my “speech”. The following day teachers that I had never seen before stopped me in the hallway. They said stuff like “your speech was the best one”, “my colleague told me how great you were at the staff meet, and I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there”, “I was moved to tears”. It was a cool feeling.

My year in Vermont was the best thing I’ve done so far! I proved I AM A FIGHTER and that NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE!

Becoming an exchange student even though you have a birth defect works! I am sure of that!

At the moment, I’m holding presentations about my disability, that nothing is impossible, prejudices and positive support.

Good Luck!
Hug, Gabrielle

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