Written by Syeda Farwa Fatima
Co-Founder of Ed-Ability
Ed. M Candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education
Nick Hoekstra, a former graduate of the International Education Policy (IEP) program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and current Advisor on Inclusive Education at Ecuador's Ministry for Knowledge and Human Talent, visited Cambridge last week. He brought together an Ecuadorian delegation of leaders in higher education to understand the inclusive practices and specialized facilities offered at different institutions across Massachusetts. His aim was to help the delegation explore the best practices of inclusive education that they all can take back home.
As inspirational as Nick is, he addressed a group of current IEP program students and reaffirmed the resolve of many present there to determinedly work for Education For All (EFA). Having lost his sight at the age of 8, Nick led a tumultuous life that not only helped him learn how to overcome his own battles, but also how to help others surpass theirs. As he recalled, he felt very fortunate to have grown up in the US where he always had the experience of being treated as a ‘normal’ student. With the exception of a year in the beginning when he was in placed in a special education environment to learn how to use the braille and other technological facilitations, he proudly spoke how he always studied in inclusive settings. He believed that it was because of such settings that he was able to come this far.
Drawing on his college experiences, Nick spoke about his time at the University of Michigan where he felt very comfortable with the accommodations offered and support available. However, when he did a study abroad program in Santiago, Chile, he for the first time realized what it was for students with disabilities elsewhere, other than the US. He humorously recalled as to how there were no special accommodations for students with disabilities at the university and he had to send his textbooks back home to be digitized.
However, Nick drew his real inspiration to change the education systems for children with disabilities around the world, from his experiences in Japan. He describes how the Japanese education system viewed students with disabilities or cognitive impairments as ‘dumb kids’ who were bunched together into one big group, regardless of what grade level they belonged to, and administered extremely substandard services. As he worked as an English teacher in a general education public school, he was requested to visit some blind children at a nearby school one day. It was there that he met a young eight-year old boy, full of passion and intelligent energy but unfortunately had been put together with children much younger than him and was forced to follow the same trajectory of learning as those around him. This triggered Nick’s provocation as he sorely reflected that ‘this was the age when I lost my sight and how easily this could have been me in another country and context’.
Nick understood how he needed to work with the policy makers to change the reality of countries like Japan. Although HGSE did not offer a customized master’s program in special education, Nick took advantage of the flexibility of the IEP program and shaped it to his interests. He took up all the classes offered that related to the subject from Special Education Policy with Laura Schifter, Inclusive Education with Tom Hehir, to Universal Design Learning with David Rose. He also organized an international conference on inclusive education practices and built many resources and connections through that experience. He graduated from HGSE and began working with an international organization called Creative Associates in Washington D.C when an opportunity to work for the Ministry in Ecuador knocked his doors- stemming from some great connections he managed to maintain over the years. He immediately prepared himself for yet another rollercoaster and set off to explore a land that was once again, nothing like home.
Nick’s unwavering courage and positive energy was definitely contagious. It helped strengthen the resolve of many of us to believe in our capabilities and strive in the way of our drive, no matter how difficult and remote it may seem-the distance eventually closes and success comes forth-ideals that echo through many of our discussions, resonating with Jimmy Carter, Frances Fowler and Fernando Reimers- as we #learntochangetheworld.