Gala Korniyenko is a PhD candidate in City and Regional Planning at the Knowlton School whose research focuses on planning with autistic and neurodiverse communities. In addition to her doctoral research, Gala is actively engaged in governance, advocacy, and community-building in the wider university community. We recently spent time with her to find out how she arrived at Ohio State, what keeps her busy, and what the future holds.
Can you talk about your life before you began your graduate program at Ohio State?
After I completed my first graduate degree in languages and literature in Ukraine, I worked as an assistant to the director of the waterworks office in Cherkasy. I got the job because I knew English, and at that time the waterworks director had some projects with the European Union and the United State's sister-city in Iowa through the U. S. Department of State. I made lots of friends at different departments of the waterworks, and learned a lot about city water systems, infrastructure, emergency response, and water cleaning processes. It was a great experience and that was when I became interested in city management.
Later, I worked for the USAID Community Development Project that focused on Central Ukraine and as a project manager for the Institute for City Development, where I researched grants and funding for different community development projects. Again, my knowledge of English helped a lot. During this time I enrolled in an open online course called TechniCity, co-taught by Dr. Jennifer Evans-Cowley at the Knowlton School, and this is how I got interested in the field of planning.
What led you to Ohio State?
From the time I found out about the field of planning and the use of technology in city management through my online course, I decided that I wanted to come to Ohio State and meet Dr. Evans-Cowley. I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to get a master’s degree in urban planning, but the Institute of International Education sent me to the University of Kansas. A Muskie Scholarship, which is created for Fulbrighters to participate in summer internships, allowed me to reconnect with Dr. Evans-Cowley, who invited me in 2015 to come to Ohio State to work with her during the summer and conduct research in planning.
Dr. Evans-Cowley introduced me to the organizational structure of the university, which included the university landscape architect, the Planning, Architecture, and Real Estate Department, and the Facilities Operations and Development Office. Dr. Cowley also involved me in her higher education research on universities. That summer's work prepared me to seek other opportunities when I came to Ohio State to pursue a doctorate in city and regional planning in 2016.
Can you explain your research of planning processes with people with disabilities? How did you become interested in this topic?
I think of myself as a very curious person. I started to think about having a disability within the context of a city when I was a child visiting my aunt who was blind and living independently. I had noticed how limited her travel was, which was mainly centered around her house and garden. Also, as a child, I spent every summer in the village helping my grandma, and I would hear her complain from time to time about how she could not do certain things that she used to do when she was younger and stronger. I learned how to be patient, humble, and to understand different levels of abilities.
After I started to work for the city of Cherkasy, I began meeting with several disability activists. Because of my previous internship at the Illinois State Senate with Senator Pamela Althoff, I was able to procure a U. S. Department of State Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund grant. Supported by this grant, I became the author and project manager for the Braille Ukraine project, which focused on empowering and supporting Ukrainians who are blind or have poor eyesight to ensure they have equal opportunities. To create social entrepreneurship opportunities for blind people, my group purchased a 3D printer to produce Braille signs that duplicated plates on public institutions and organizational buildings. We were the first in Ukraine to have plates produced using this method.
My research has been shaped by the people I have met. One of my mentors is Dr. Victor Pineda, a world-known disability activist and planner. He coached me when I was at the University of Kansas, and he supported me in applying to the PhD program to do research on the topic of disability and planning.
Planners work with a wide variety of communities and people, and I think people with disabilities are not always at the table as part of the planning or design process. This is the topic and title of my dissertation research–Assessing Participation in Planning Process Using the Six Feelings Framework. In my research, I examine what aspects of existing planning theory are beneficial in furthering our understanding and planning with autistic and neurodiverse communities. The goal of this work is the development of procedural tools that can accommodate the public participation of a diverse population of people with different cognitive abilities. This would potentially address the sensory needs of people with dementia, Alzheimer's, epilepsy, and such.
You have recently been appointed to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) Review and Appraisal Committee. Can you tell us about your committee work, and your previous involvement with ACSP?
My involvement with the ACSP started when City and Regional Planning Section Head Dr. Jennifer Clark invited me to work on the Knowlton School's accreditation process, analysis of planning schools’ ranking, and survey of our program alumni. Dr. Laxmi Ramasubramanian, ACSP Vice President and Chair of the ACSP Review and Appraisal Committee, attended my first ever presentation at the ACSP conference in Buffalo, NY in 2018, where I presented autism and planning research conducted with Professor Kyle Ezell.
The committee reviews the activities, programs, ways and means of the association, helps set the future presidential agenda, and recommends policy or organizational changes to help assure the fulfillment of the association’s purposes. This year we are working on the topic of disability inclusion in accreditation and reporting on diversity.
Ohio State ranked No. 1 nationally in producing Fulbright scholars for the 2020-2021 academic year. With other Ohio State students, you co-founded Buckeye Brighters, a Fulbright student association. As a former Fulbright scholar, what do you hope this new organization will accomplish on campus?
The idea to create Buckeye Brighters originated when I met current and former Ohio State Fulbrighters at a Central Ohio Fulbright alumni gathering. I had a great experience at the University of Kansas which had a Brighters organization and I wondered why Ohio State did not have one. In Kansas, the main purpose of the student organization is to help international Fulbrighters settle into their new environment and make friends. I think it is even more important now when most of our studies are online and we have become isolated due to the pandemic. At Buckeye Brighters we strive to provide a peer support network for current, former, and incoming international Fulbright students and scholars at the Ohio State University.
We are hoping that the Ohio State association can create a Fulbright Scholars House, similar to other scholarship homes, where people from different backgrounds and different fields can come together, learn, and create. This is my big dream for the organization.
As a senator for the Council of Graduate Students at Ohio State, can you discuss your committee appointments and the nature of this work?
As a senator for the Council of Graduate Students, I am serving two terms on the Senate Committees on Physical Environment and Housing and Family Affairs. As a part of my senatorial role, I focus specifically on issues of housing, family affairs, pregnant students, students with children, and students from diverse backgrounds. I am currently engaged in work to save our graduate student family housing at Buckeye Village, and to make education more accessible for non-traditional students and students with children. As a University Senator representing graduate students, I make it a point to raise questions about economic and other types of disparities that affect students with disabilities, international students, and students with families and children.
As you conclude your graduate research at Ohio State, can you describe the type of work you plan to pursue as you begin your professional career?
I want to continue to work with communities on the ground and learn from them. I remember my grandma advised me to be humble and compassionate. As she said to me once—Do the work well so there will be no need to redo it. I wish to connect theoretical research with the practicality of planning. The beauty of the planning field is that you can collaborate with so many disciplines on a diversity of topics. I hope for future leadership opportunities in higher education that express my passionate drive to make a powerful impact on future generations. I believe that at Ohio State I have developed the experience and flexible skill sets that will enable me to be an effective leader in the future.