Tony Nicolalde, a first-year student majoring in special education, has been working his whole life to integrate American Sign Language (ASL) into school curriculums.
As a fifth grader, Nicolalde helped teach first graders who were deaf and hard of hearing to read, and tutored others in ASL. Nicolalde continued his pursuit to integrate ASL into schools when he petitioned his high school to offer an ASL class. When he found it difficult to obtain sponsors for the class, he found a teacher willing to let him use her room to teach ASL classes and founded his high school’s first ASL club.
Nicolalde said he wanted to provide individuals the opportunity to improve their sign language capabilities because there are more deaf and hard of hearing individuals than one might think. Nicolalde, of all people, would know.
“Growing up, I was a Child of Deaf Adults. I was a CODA,” Nicolalde said.
Growing up he had a hard time fitting into the Latino community because his parents couldn’t teach him Spanish. All he knew was English and ASL.
“I couldn’t fit in with the deaf community because I was hearing, and I couldn’t fit in fully with the Latino community because I couldn’t speak Spanish,” Nicolalde said. “No one could understand completely what it was like growing up with deaf parents.”
Nicolalde’s perspective shifted when he attended a Kids of Deaf Adults (KODA) Midwest camp, where he met others going through similar experiences to his own and finally found acceptance. Nicolalde was inspired to make deaf education more than something he did after school. He had found his career.
“It was one of the best moments of my life,” said Nicolalde.
With his career path decided, Nicolalde began researching colleges to attend. He chose to visit Illinois State when he discovered it to have the largest program in Illinois, as well as being one of the top five producers of deaf and hard of hearing teachers in the nation.
After his visit, he was enamored.
“I loved the scenery, the inclusivity on campus, and the diversity programs,” Nicolalde said.
Having grown up in a liminal state, one foot in two distinct cultures, it means a lot to Nicolalde to know that Illinois State has the systems in place to listen to and support him during his transition to college.
“I love that there are all these amazing resources I can use to my advantage,” he said.
When his time at Illinois State is said and done, Nicolalde wants to teach for a school near his hometown. He says perhaps at some point he’ll pursue a master’s degree to obtain a district position, and maybe then he’ll be able to start the ASL class he fought for in high school.