Callum’s Story: Travelling and Studying Abroad

Callum Russell completed his degree in Modern Foreign Languages (French, Italian and Spanish) in 2014. His natural strength in languages guided him towards a degree at the University of Birmingham with the fantastic opportunity to study each language with equal academic weighting in the respective locations abroad. “It’s important to always keep life in perspective. As a blind person, if I could go backpacking solo for seven weeks then I can do anything!” Straight after his degree, Callum took a gap year and backpacked in South America for seven weeks. He positively attributes his ability to complete a Masters in European Political and Administrative Studies at the college of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, to the confidence he gained from travelling. These incredible experiences bring Callum to his role as the Employment and Community Fundraiser Officer for Sight for Surrey, where he helped to run its employment support programme and regularly assisted corporate community fundraising activities, and most recently as Equality, diversity, and Inclusion officer at Surrey Police. Blind since birth due to his eye condition, Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, Callum, now 28, shares his journey through university, the challenges of studying abroad and the transition from university into employment.  

Applying for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA)

The DSA process was straightforward for Callum. He said: “I found the DSA process pretty good. In terms of the assessment I thought it went really well. The assessor was thorough and asked loads of questions to make sure I got what I was asking for. “I did end up with the wrong equipment but that wasn’t the fault of the assessor that was my own fault for mistakenly wanting to use a MacBook but realising quickly that it wasn’t suitable for me and my course. I still managed to sort everything out though!”  

Choosing the right course and getting support

Callum highlighted the importance of course choice in balance with exploring the support which may be available. He explained: “I think there’s a real tendency within the sector to say to students, ‘you need to think about the kind of support you’re going to get at university and you need to choose the university based on this alone’. I think a student could have the most fantastic support package in the world, but if they are on the wrong course, it’s no good. So, my biggest piece of advice is, try and make your decision based on the course first and focus on the additional support later.”  

Engage Disability Support Services as early as you can

Callum advises: “Make sure you engage with your Disability Support Service at your perspective university at an early stage – as early as possible to ensure you really have everything you need when you start. It really helped me. For example with my year abroad, the university paid for and released a staff member to come with me and visit each host university that I was going to go to so we could get a feel for the place and how the university could support me.”  

The importance of self-advocating

Callum encourages others to really think about their learning needs and the importance of self-advocating. He said: “I quickly realised the importance of taking responsibility for my learning and needs whilst studying. I had to personally understand my support needs and learn how to explain those needs in a succinct way to the Teaching Assistants or QVTI’s [Qualified Teachers of Visual Impairment]. “Due to the nature of my course it was a challenge getting the support in place to study abroad as you are dealing with different countries and their legal systems as well as different cultures.

“But even though it was a challenge at first, I recognised the importance of speaking with all lecturers, including the ones abroad, regularly and building a positive relationship with them, so I had a better chance of getting what I wanted from my course.”


The logistics of accommodation

For students returning, Callum says to be mindful of accommodation. He explains: “When I was studying across three different countries, I didn’t have much time to organise my living arrangements back at university. One of the important things was to make sure I went back into university halls, so I didn’t have to re-do all the mobility training again.”  

Life after university

After a self-described ‘rollercoaster start’ to life, an internship at Sight for Surrey gave Callum a new path into employment. Despite early challenges in his internship, Callum highlighted: “I think my interpersonal skills grew to a more significant level. One thing I have really learnt within employment is the credit you earn when you are able to deal with an adverse moment in a positive way.”  

Travelling helped with confidence in employment

Callum reflected on his travelling experiences and how this helped him to be adaptable in challenging situations and overcome moments of adversity. He adds: “My experiences have taught me it’s important to always keep life in perspective. Throughout life and in employment there are always going to be highs and lows. As a blind person, if I could go backpacking solo for seven weeks then I can do anything!”  

Access to Work and assistive technology

Callum’s corporate and community fundraising responsibilities at work requires travel to various schools, rotary clubs, and businesses. He has had support for this through Access to Work while using assistive technologies for day-to-day tasks. He said: “Access to Work has been fantastic. I have a support work driver who helps ensure I get from A to B but also assists me with parts of my job that I just simply can’t do.

“I use a Braille Note Touch Plus, which is an Android tablet with a Braille display which isn’t a perfect substitute for a laptop but it means I can complete 85% of my job using it and the other 15% involves my support worker – so it works great!”


The future

Callum hopes to travel again once things have returned to normal, not only to visit but also to perform. He explains: “At the college of Europe, I was a part of a band. We try and play twice a year. We were due to perform in Paris in May so that one will be next! I would also love to go to Patagonia and revisit Buenos Aires again.”  

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