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Seeing autism's challenges leads to activism

Janet Kiplinger Ciccone
December 02, 2014

Phi U Scholarship launches an advocate for children with disabilities

Nicole Gravalis is passionate about advocating for children with disabilities. Her dedication sprang from growing up in the same neighborhood near two children with autism.

One child—Sam—was not at all verbal. His parents rarely heard him speak. They were strong advocates, trying to get him the assistive technology they felt he needed, but it was a struggle.

“Watching them go through that was painful,” Gravalis said.

Finally, when Sam was 14, his parents succeeded. He learned to type on a special computer, and his father read this note to Gravalis and other friends.

I need you to know I love you, Sam wrote to his parents. I’ve never been able to say it, and I can’t show it that well, but you need to know that I appreciate everything you’ve done.

“I was crying, hearing Sam’s dad read his note,” Gravalis said. “After seeing the family go through that experience, I really wanted to work with kids who need advocates, especially kids in low-income areas, where help is less available. I want to show kids like Sam that they are capable and smart. We just need to learn how to teach them as individuals.”

The path to advocacy

To fulfill her heartfelt goals, Gravalis came to Ohio State from Ramsey, New Jersey, choosing the Bachelor of Science in Education program and specializing in early childhood education.  Her goal is to become an occupational therapist working with children.

“With my younger twin sisters in college too, my parents are struggling,” Gravalis said. “So when Ohio State gave me scholarship funding, I was happy to become a Buckeye.”

One of Gravalis’ scholarships comes from Phi Omicron Upsilon, the National Honor Society of Family and Consumer Sciences. Ohio State’s Phi U collegiate chapter welcomes education majors like Gravalis.

“I was honored to receive the Phi U Scholarship,” Gravalis said. “Being recognized for the effort I’m making and my dedication to my program is rewarding. Now I’m meeting the Phi U alumni and can thank them personally for their belief in my goals as an educator and occupational therapist. It means a lot that they’re behind me.”

A talent for planning brings a power-packed schedule

Gravalis has spent two semesters in classrooms and expects to spend three more, two of which will be student teaching for 40 hours per week. She particularly values her major for the experience it gives her in how children develop.

“Being in the classroom with kids who have disabilities and seeing how they interact with their more able-bodied peers is eye-opening,” she said. “I was in a kindergarten classroom during spring semester at South-Western City Schools. One child had ADHD and was always moving around the room.

“It was helpful to see him in the classroom as well as individually. I was learning how to help him be better prepared for school, and how I could help his peers relate to him better.”

Gravalis speaks highly of the faculty and staff in her program. She’s currently taking a pedagogy course with Michelle Sanderson, the program manager and advisor to her cohort. “Dr. Sanderson has a huge respect for children and is very ethical in how she talks to them. It’s something I want to bring to the classroom myself. She understands the thinking behind their behavior and redirects them.”

Careful planning packs days with learning, service, fun

Gravalis keeps more than busy after she’s done making the Dean’s List every semester and being presidential with Phi U. She works as a cook at The MarketPlace, a student dining site on campus.

She also belongs to the Humanities Scholars group in the university’s Honors & Scholars program. The members attend cultural events together and expand their awareness of humanitarian issues. They engage in service projects, and Gravalis devotes time to mentoring a freshman in the group.

Gravalis also plays intramural sports as part of the Department of Athletics’ All Scholars League. Although she might well have made the softball team, Gravalis decided not to tax her schedule further. “I’m happy playing softball, flag football and basketball with my scholar’s group,” she said. “It’s really fun.”

So how does Gravalis manage what would appear to be a million-hour week? “I’m a planner,” she said. “I prioritize very well.”


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