A Journey Through Education: An Interview with Natalie Delgado-Grace

Natalie Delgado-Grace is a Latinx Deaf ASL user, and English and Spanish speaker born to hearing parents from Ecuador. She was identified as hard-of-hearing at five years old, and had communication access growing up with the use of her hearing aids. After attending a mainstream school with no support, she progressively lost more hearing at the ages of 13 to 18. After becoming deaf at 18, Delgado discovered ASL and the Deaf community, and  transferred from her hearing undergraduate college to Gallaudet University to study psychology.

Delgado began her graduate career at Columbia University and later transferred to Lamar, where she received her masters in Deaf Education and where she is currently working on her doctorate. Her research interests include Deaf Latinx, early childhood/early intervention, language acquisition, and identity development.

Here, Natalie tells us about her journey through education and higher education, including why she made certain choices to aid her deafness along the way.

Hi Natalie. What was your experience in a mainstream school?

My experience in my private school  (and later my public school) was more positive than not. However, I did not have any accommodations at all. I had no FM system, no interpreter, no IEP or 504*…nothing. So I struggled a lot to follow along in class, especially as I got older and started losing more hearing. Hearing teachers in mainstream schools walk around their classrooms a lot and they face the board while they talk sometimes, so I couldn’t always lipread them and I would miss information. It was also hard to keep up in the cafeteria when it got loud, and I faked a lot of conversations with my friends.

(*504 – A 504 plan is a document in the USA that acts as a blueprint for how the school will provide supports and remove barriers for a student with a disability, so the student has equal access to the general education curriculum. It is different to an IEP and is affected and empowered by different laws to the IEP.)

What kind of support did you receive in school?

I did not receive any support, I had no IEP or 504. I just lip read my teachers, wore my hearing aids, and hoped for the best. My parents are from Ecuador and didn’t know any services like that existed—no doctor or audiologist told them, and we didn’t know about early intervention services.

What did you know about Gallaudet before looking into it?

I had heard that it was the world’s only Deaf university, and that it was like a Mecca for the Deaf community. Many people told me that it was a special place and that there was nowhere else like it.

What made you choose Gallaudet over Rochester Institute (RIT)?

Galludet UniversityI chose to attend Gallaudet because I had never gone to a Deaf school before. I grew up around all hearing people and around spoken English and Spanish. Nobody around me had ever signed. I visited both schools and enjoyed them both. I came close to choosing RIT because of an unfavorable encounter with a girl in the cafeteria at Gallaudet, but my friends told me to just ignore the one negative girl I met. Gallaudet ended up winning out in the end because to me, RIT resembled the real world, a mix of Deaf and hearing people, and I’d still need accommodations for classes. At Gallaudet though, I wouldn’t need any accommodations because classes are in ASL and most everyone else is Deaf like me. What is boiled down to is that Gallaudet is the only university already tailored to Deaf people and I wanted to meet more of them.

How did you find the learning and social environments at Gallaudet?

I found the learning environment to be amazing. The smaller class ratio was fantastic. I loved being able to have more intimate discussions with my peers and my professors, as well as the more personal relationships I was able to develop. At my hearing university, I felt as though I had to explain my interests and goals to my teachers, and remind them about my plans, because they weren’t always invested. At Gallaudet, I felt like we were all family, and my professors cared.

The social environment for me was probably the best part. As someone who didn’t meet any deaf people until the age of 18, Gallaudet was like a whole new world. I was able to socialize and interact with every single person I met, without having to work hard to communicate. It was amazing being able to go to parties and social events without feeling like I was going to be isolated or bored because I didn’t understand what was going on.

What was the biggest difference for you in studying at Gallaudet as opposed to a mainstream university? 

The biggest difference for me was feeling a connection to Gallaudet itself. While I enjoyed my classes and the organisation I floundered at my mainstream university, I didn’t feel as connected to my school as I did at Gallaudet. Gallaudet made an impact on me as a person and as an academic. I also had greater opportunities for networking and internships that I wouldn’t have had at my mainstream university because they didn’t have the same kind of professional connections that Gallaudet does.

What kind of support did you receive for improving your English language and ASL skills?

I already was fluent in English before arriving to Gallaudet, I grew up speaking English and Spanish, so I didn’t need any support in that regard. I had only been signing for one year when I arrived at Gallaudet, and had to take a placement exam to see if I needed ASL classes. I tested out of ASL classes and did not need any support. If I ever had an issue though, I just had to ask my teacher for clarification or as a friend. It was rare that I had a problem that required me to reach out.

Would you recommend attending Gallaudet to deaf students?

Absolutely! I had an incredible experience. There’s nowhere else like it, so why not experience it while you can?

And even if they do not have strong ASL skills?

I would. I didn’t have strong ASL skills and I was able to make it through, they can too! I also had many friends who had cochlear implants, hearing aids, who were raised oral, went to mainstream schools…you name it, none of them signed upon their arrival at Gallaudet. All of them are now fluent signers.

Have you found that people question your qualification’s veracity, as it has come from Gallaudet? 

I have never found that anyone questions my qualifications, because I believe my work speaks for itself. If anyone wants to read some of my work during my bachelors degree, they can do a quick search for my Honors Capstone project on Deaf people in Ecuador.

I have also completed my masters degree and am in the second year of my doctorate. I would not have come this far if Gallaudet did not prepare me adequately. I will also add though that I was in the Honors program because I wanted to be challenged further. The Honors program added an extra layer of complexity on top of my work I already had to do.

I would not question the quality of instruction at Gallaudet. I have attended multiple schools (including an Ivy League institution), and I feel I have the ability to say Gallaudet is up to par with many others. Rather than judge Gallaudet as a whole, I would tell others to look at individual capacity. What makes the biggest difference is what YOU make of your educational experience.

What advice would you give to any deaf individuals who would like to go to University?

If a Deaf person wanted to attend Gallaudet, I would tell them to take advantage of everything they have to offer. Gallaudet is great at encouraging students to take internships, volunteer, study abroad, and so much more. You may never get the experience it offers ever again, and especially not with the built-in access everything comes with. You can really do plenty there that would prepare you for your future career, and they have so many services and people ready to support you.

If a Deaf person wanted to attend a university in general, I would tell them the same thing I would say for Gallaudet—take advantage of your resources and your professors. There is so much out there that you may not be able to find it all and partake in everything, but make use of what you can. I would also say to have a support system in place, because sometimes it’s hard to get through a hearing university without friends who understand you. I had difficulty enjoying my hearing undergraduate university before I met other Deaf people. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

What do you hope to do professionally? 

I am still working on my doctorate, so I don’t have any set plans for after I graduate just yet. I’m hoping to continue researching, no matter where I am or what I do. I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at an administrative position eventually within the Deaf school I work at, or elsewhere. I enjoy teaching and have found the Deaf school setting to be my favorite. I also wouldn’t mind teaching at a university and continuing research there as well.

My dream is to open an early intervention center of some sort and conduct research there, but we’ll see what happens!

Find Natalie on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/ndelgadograce

Read her other contribution: A Latinx Perspective

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