Tony Nicolalde has to pause a Zoom meeting to help his mom make an appointment. That’s because he is hearing and his parents, both immigrants from Ecuador, are Deaf. Nicolalde is a pro at straddling dual identities. He is hearing and Child of a Deaf Adult (CODA). A first-generation American of Latino heritage, he is fluent in Spanish, English, and American Sign Language (ASL).

It’s Nicolalde’s unique upbringing that informs his personal motto: It doesn’t matter where you come from. You can be successful with the right resources.

The senior special education major counts among his resources a strong support system that includes family, friends, and professors such as Assistant Professor Stephanie Gardiner-Walsh—with whom Nicolalde communicated even before setting foot on campus. He was eager to work with Gardiner-Walsh, who is also CODA.

Nicolalde has also benefitted from scholarships during his time at ISU. On top of his full-tuition waiver for academic standing, he received the Class of 1986 Scholarship, Evelyn J. Rex Scholarship, Illinois State University Alumni Association Scholarship, and the Waneta Sedgewick Catey Scholarship. He’s used the money to pay for room and board and support his family.

Nicolalde’s educational journey is the opposite of parents’ experience. They immigrated to the United States in pursuit of better educational opportunities before Nicolalde and his younger sister Ruth were born. Their experience motivated Nicolalde to pursue teaching as a career. “I don’t want a student of mine to not have the best choices in education,” he said.

One way Nicolalde hopes to provide for future students is by expanding the amount of ASL classes available in Illinois. He’s using data to correlate the population of students across Illinois and existing ASL classes to prove demand for the curriculum. He’s also concerned with supporting people of color, whether Deaf or hearing, within the educational system.

“I want to encourage hearing students to learn ASL so that the Deaf community can feel welcomed into mainstream society while still maintaining their Deaf identity,” he said.

Nicolalde is currently completing his junior practicum at North Elementary School in Villa Park. He’s teaching students a range of topics—from money identification to the states of matter—using total communication that is a mixture of ASL and spoken English.

Through his practicum and coursework at Illinois State, Nicolalde has become the type of educator his parents wanted for him. “My parents are proud of me. They’ve seen that I’ve grown and matured,” he said. “Knowing what they’ve accomplished inspires me.”

Scholarships help attract and retain students like Tony Nicolalde, who aspire to make an impact. To learn more about creating a scholarship for education students at Illinois State, contact College of Education Director of Development Wilma Bates at (309) 438-4304 or