Kennesaw State students make connections for inclusive education abroad

  Students' journey to United Arab Emirates yields greater independence, partnerships…

Georgia (Jun 8, 2015) —  

Students' journey to United Arab Emirates yields greater independence, partnerships

KENNESAW, Ga. (June 8, 2015) — Kennesaw State University’s Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth (AILSG) promises its students a fully inclusive two-year college experience for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Nobody said anything about camel rides.

“I have had the best time of my life!,” Brielyn Roper-Hubbert, an AILSG student, said of her camel ride. “I had so much fun and learned so much!”

That camel experience represents part of the remarkable growth since the program’s 2009 inception. It has grown from a three-student cohort that first year to 36 students this fall, with the addition of an advanced 2-year certificate in Leadership and Career Development. . And another sign of that growth was taking the program international when the AILSG teamed with WellStar College of Health and Human Services’ Department of Exercise Science and Sport Management (ESSM) on a trip to the United Arab Emirates: the university’s first inclusive education abroad program.

The emphasis was on inclusion and to promote the independence for the AILSG students. So for 10 days, Kennesaw State students with and without intellectual and developmental differences roomed, worked, traveled, learned together and created a system of mutual support while experiencing the diversity and culture of the UAE – camel rides for Kennesaw State students included – making stops in Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.

Dr. Ibrahim Elsawy, Executive Director of the AILSG specifically chose the UAE because of its progressive work with students with disabilities, the accessibility of the country as a whole, and the unique melding of history, culture, and acceptance. He added that the country’s disabilities instruction is good for all the students and they will have partners to work with them in Sharjah for ongoing projects.

“It was beyond our expectations,” said Dr, Elsawy, who also organized the first Arab-American Dialogue on Disability, held at KSU in 2009, with 14 Arab World countries in attendance. When Dr. Elsawy began to plan the trip, he knew to enlist the assistance of Dr. Jimmy Calloway, an internationally respected professor, who has worked with Dr. Elsawy on several other projects of worldwide scope.

 “The way the students worked together was better than we’d imagined,” said Dr. Calloway, KSU Professor of sport management. “You could not tell who was from the Academy and who was in Sport Management. They represented the Academy and Sport Management very well.

“The whole purpose of the trip was inclusion. We did not want to separate Academy students from sport management students. That is what made this trip unique. From airplane seating assignments to room assignments, sport management students shared rooms, seating assignments and events with each other.

“Out of 200 Academy like programs across the country only one other program that we know of has ever sent academy students abroad. Our program is the only one that was formally invited and received by a foreign NGO.”

Dr. Elsawy credits the success of the trip, in part, to the deft guidance of Julia Conger, LMSW, Social & Academic Advisor, who accompanied the group. Academy students made travel test runs last year going to New York and Washington, DC. They also attended meetings with the ESSM students to learn the dos and don’ts of traveling to the UAE.

The students — three from AILSG and five from ESSM — shared their experiences with members of the royal family, including His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad bin Sultan Al Qasimi,, crown prince and deputy ruler of Sharjah, and Her Highness Sheikha Jameela Al Qasimi, who provided invaluable guidance for the trip.

“It was the most incredible experience I ever had,” said Dr. Calloway, who also was vice president of the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta. “I traveled around the world because of the 1996 Games, and there was nothing close to the experience I had there (in the UAE). From how we were treated by the royal family to how we were treated by their government was terrific.

“And the inclusive experience was phenomenal. I’ve been involved in travel abroad experiences for years. And spending 10 days with the same people in three places, and the schedule we kept, and not have one blow up? I’ve never seen that.”

The group visited several nongovernmental organizations that support individuals with disabilities, as well as the Sharjah Sport Council, a governmental organization that supports sport and inclusion in the Sharjah community. Students spent time learning about the supportive organizations, like the Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services, and interacting with local residents with and without disabilities. They attended classes and made presentations at Sharjah University.

One of the more memorable moments for Charlie Miller, an AILSG student from Gainesville, Ga., came when he played with the children at the Al Thiqah Club for the Handicapped.

“We were all playing and having a blast,” said Miller, who accompanied AILSG classmates Roper-Hubbert and Janet Keller on the trip. “One of the kids gave me a bracelet and I knew then, this is where I should be.”

While with the crown prince, the group discussed issues of education, culture and Islam. And as the students would find out during the trip, Islam, though the prevailing faith, was not the only one. They also visited a church on Easter Sunday and discovered there are Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Coptic faiths as well.

“It was a surprise to the students because they thought the Middle East was only Muslim and that there were no Christians,” Elsawy said. “We found Christians everywhere and talked with a minister about the level of religious freedom. It was a very important education for them. And most of the students said that it changed the stereotype they had. And this was a change for both sides.”

That was just part of their engagement with local residents and leaders as the students were immersed in the rich and diverse culture of the Emirates. Additionally, faculty discussed the possibilities of collaborating with the University of Sharjah in the areas of sport management and criminal justice, building the foundation to ongoing cooperation and mutual benefit.  Dr. Elsawy is also actively developing opportunities for international student internships with interested partners.

The trip had a profound impact on Emilee Manning, a Sports Management major. Being in the UAE with Kennesaw State’s Academy students helped her establish her life goals.

“It broadened my cultural mindset as well as secured my passion to work with those who have different abilities,” Manning said. “My goal is to assist professional athletes to found nonprofits for things they are passionate about, particularly giving back to those who deserve it most, those with different abilities.”

Dr. Elsawy recognizes the extraordinary support from the Office of Study Abroad, Dr. Monica Nandan, interim Dean of the WellStar College of Health and Human Services, as well as from Provost Ken Harmon and President Daniel Papp.

This trip has been a dream for Dr. Elsawy ever since he took on the role of Executive Director for the Academy, in December of 2012.

“Organizations in the Emirates are hoping to work with us on different things,”Elsawy said. “The people got to see that the American students were serious, they are willing to understand (different cultures). They were good ambassadors for the U.S. and KSU. It was a very good trip.”


— by Tim Turner


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit