Academia has always been a refuge for Nicolette Gonzales.
The Pecos teen’s parents, Nickolaus Gonzales and Ramona Maya, now divorced, are both deaf, which often has been fodder for naysayers — including some teachers — and schoolyard bullies. English was not Gonzales’ first language. She learned to communicate in American Sign Language, and the transition to speaking posed challenges.
“In first grade, I was really shy,” she said. “It wasn’t normal for me to talk.”
But schoolwork, she said, has always soothed her. “I learned to block it out,” Gonzales said of her challenges. “And I threw myself into school.”
Gonzales, 18, recently graduated from Pecos High School as a co-valedictorian, taking Advanced Placement classes including biology and history. She has snagged several highly vaunted scholarships and has earned a place in a selective University of New Mexico program.
Gonzales’ most prominent award is the Gates-Millennium scholarship, issued by a foundation created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The award will cover any of her college expenses that are not covered by financial aid or other scholarship awards, as long as she remains in school. In 2012, about 24,000 students throughout the country applied for the funding, which is given to 1,000 students, including 30 in New Mexico this year.
Gonzales also won one of 73 Los Alamos Employees Scholarships, worth $10,000, and she was admitted to the undergraduate medical program at The University of New Mexico, which admits only 28 students from the state each year. The program guarantees Gonzales a spot in UNM’s medical school after she completes her bachelor’s degree. She is the first Pecos resident to be accepted into the program in its eight-year history.
Her planned move to Albuquerque is daunting, she said, but she also is thrilled at the opportunity to go to a place where she will be judged on her merits and not her family history.
“It will be nice to meet people who don’t already know everything about me,” she said.
Gonzales appears to be shy at first. She hesitates when speaking about herself, especially when she talks about her accomplishments or her home life.
Her name has always appeared on the honor roll, and she has been winning science fairs since elementary school. Science is her favorite subject, she said. It comes naturally to her. She appreciates that it has right answers and wrong answers.
She speaks German and a bit of Spanish, as well as English and American Sign Language.
But she’s not much different from most teens. She likes reading young adult novels in the post-apocalypse genre, such as The Maze Runner, and she plays popular video games, like Pokémon and The Legend of Zelda. She ran on the cross country and track teams at her high school.
In her small town, however, with a population of just 1,400 and only 50 seniors in her graduating class, Gonzales has been identified more by her parents’ hearing disorders than her own abilities.
Many people even expected her to be deaf, as well. In elementary school, she said, some children would taunt her with made-up sign language.
Other classmates wanted her to teach them the language.
“They loved it,” Gonzales said. “It was our secret club, talking in sign language.”
In high school, she said, some teachers would embarrass her by signing out letters. She recalled one teacher shouting at her, telling her she should attend the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe. Other teachers, she said, told her she wasn’t going to make valedictorian.
Those detractors just pushed her forward.
“I wanted to prove them wrong,” she said. “And I did it. That’s proof enough.”
Gonzales is surprisingly upbeat, given the recent tragedies she has faced. One of her older brothers died about a year ago, and her paternal grandfather, who helped her raise her, died two months before her graduation.
“He always pushed me,” she said.
She now lives with her paternal grandmother.
While her parents’ household had been one filled with silence and sign language, her grandmother and grandfather were vital in helping her develop a relationship with sounds, encouraging her to speak and to listen to music. She now plays guitar and piano.
None of her brothers and sisters are deaf — she said deafness is not a genetic condition for either of her parents. But Gonzales is starting to see her younger siblings face the same type of bullying that she has endured.
She also sees them beginning to excel in the same way she did. They might even outdo her, she jokes.
She wants to become a doctor, Gonzales said, particularly because she remembers her parents’ struggles to communicate with their doctors and other people in the community. Deafness, she said, is an invisible disability.
“It was my life,” she said. ” I want to bridge that gap.”