Class of 2015
As she was kneeling on the floor beside her three-year-old cousin, Mateo, Gabrielle Garcia struggled to engage him in simple conversation. Because he wouldn't make eye contact, it was unclear whether he even recognized her. Undiscouraged, she gently reminded him of her name.
This ritual, which Gabrielle would repeat week after week during her family's Sunday visits to her grandparents' house, was finally given a context when Mateo was diagnosed with autism. "With Mateo's diagnosis, I began reading about autism and other developmental disorders," Gabrielle says. "I started to form an interest in special education and began to learn that my simple interactions with him had the potential to make a positive change in his life."
Once Mateo was placed in a special needs school, Gabrielle visited his classroom to get a better understanding of the children and the education process. Not long after, the school closed due to lack of funding, and Mateo was moved to a private school where he shared a classroom with students who didn't have the same needs.
"The truth is that in the Philippines, over 95 percent of children with special needs are not provided access to proper education. It's unfortunate, because a well-run program can often give them the ability to participate in society."
With much love and attention, Mateo can look Gabrielle in the eyes and greet her with a resounding "Hi, Gaby!" Her experience with his educational difficulties, however, has transcended the personal level, forming in her the conviction that she hopes will constitute her life's work.
"I believe that every individual has the right to an education. Without equal access to educational opportunity, society cannot make true progress."
It is this credo that led Gabrielle to volunteer as a tutor to the poorest of the poor in a rural village through a partnership between her school and Gawad Kalinga, a worldwide development organization.
"On Saturdays, we would travel by bus until we could go no further because the roads had turned to mud. Then we would trek in carrying the school supplies, and the children would run out to meet us," Gabrielle says. After two years of tutoring, she knew the children personally and was overjoyed as some began to rise to their potential. "One girl can now do complicated math problems very quickly. If you can give opportunities to just a few students like her, you've made real progress."
At NYU Abu Dhabi, Gabrielle wants to gain the international perspective she understands will be invaluable for her life's work in the field of education. She also has plans to conduct research on the developing school system in the UAE.
Gabrielle is already taking advantage of the College's institutional connections in the region to engage in volunteering. "I've found an opportunity to be a classroom assistant for students with cerebral palsy at Abu Dhabi's Ability Center for Special Needs," she says, adding, "It feels great to be able to give back to the community that is now my home for the next four years."