It’s one thing to have the opportunity to study abroad. It’s an entirely different thing when a photo from the trip is viewed more than a million times on social media.
The photo is of University of Montana senior Gabrielle Broere standing in the Aegean Sea in Greece, with the help of four other students.
Even though the group had taken a one-credit class during the fall semester to learn about Greece and get to know each other, Broere was still worried people would resent her if she couldn’t do everything they could do.
She has never felt limited, even when people told her she should. Broere is graduating in the fall with a degree in History, and plans to go to law school.
When Broere was one year old, she was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, a neurological disorder.
The effects of the disorder can range from unnoticeable to severe. For Broere, it has meant more than 10 surgeries and physical therapy two times a week. She has had her feet reconstructed, rods inserted into her legs and her hips lengthened.
With crutches, Broere can walk for short distances, but she uses a wheelchair most of the time.
Working to increase her mobility often causes fatigue and pain. Broere said she has to cancel plans if she’s not feeling well, and occasionally stays home from school.
“I’m not going to say I’m in constant pain, but it’s pretty common.”
Even though her disability affects her everyday life, Broere refuses to let it hold her back.
Although it was challenging, Broere refused to miss out on some of the most important moments in her life.
“I walked on my own ... across the stage at my high school graduation.”
In 2011, Broere went to Peru for a 10-day trip. There, she had some of her earliest difficulties in traveling as a disabled person; many places were difficult for her to access.
After that, she was nervous for another international experience, but applied to a winter session trip to Greece, where she and 16 other UM students would spend 17 days studying the art and archaeology of Ancient Greece.
“I wasn’t really sure how people were going to react to me and how helpful they would be and if I was going to get left behind,” she said.
Broere’s fears dissolved when other members of the group were more than willing to help out when she needed it.
“People were really good about letting me use their hands and their arms to get around when I needed it,” she said. “We made it work.”
Most sites in Greece had stairs, so Broere had to walk with crutches or be carried. Broere said some sites had lifts, but they were often broken or not running that day.
“There was one time when we were on the ferry and the lift broke so they had four guys carry me down the stairs in my wheelchair.”
On the first day of the trip, the group climbed to the Acropolis in Athens. It was challenging, but it ended up being Broere’s favorite part of the entire trip.
“I definitely want to give credit where credit is due,” she said.
When the class visited the Aegean Sea, Broere’s wheelchair couldn’t be pushed through the sand. Without her shoes and leg braces on, Broere’s feet couldn’t bear much weight. Her friends picked her up and carried her across the rocky beach to the water.
Four of her friends supported her arms and legs to hold her up so she could stand in the sea.
“It was surreal,” Broere said. “I was in complete awe of where I was and what was happening.”
While the feedback was mostly positive, some users made comments asking what the point was if she was paralyzed and couldn’t feel anything.
Broere said the comments didn’t upset her. She said she would rather have people ask questions about her disability than pass judgment.
“I laugh at (their) ignorance,” she said. “I’m not paralyzed. I could feel it. It was cold.”
“It sucks getting around and it’s hard, but I can do it. I’ve been through a lot now, and I’ll continue going through that the rest of my life. I can’t let anything hold me back. I would love to go to France and Italy next.”