IST student Andrea Miles helps to create 'lightbulb moments'

Adult learner draws on life experiences and her work with people with disabilities to guide her as a student and educator

Learning assistant Andrea Miles answers a student's question during a class taught by assistant teaching professor Jeff Rimland in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. "[Andrea] has an interesting background of work, courses and life experience, and she does a truly outstanding job of applying all of these facets of her life toward improving the learning experiences and outcomes of our students," Rimland said.  Credit: Jessica Hallman / Penn StateCreative Commons

In celebration of Women’s History Month, this is the first in a series of stories on women in Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology who are paving the way, inspiring young women and promoting diversity in a typically male-dominated industry.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For Andrea Miles, her path to Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology began in the middle of a Subway restaurant.

Miles, who was 20 years old at the time, had been training to become a manager.

“I had everything figured out, from hiring to inventory to running the store,” she said. “But when it came time to be put in a higher position, I realized I didn’t want to do that the rest of my life. I had to make a choice.”

Having saved quite a bit of money throughout her employment, Miles literally put her finger on the map to find the next stop on her journey. She — or rather her finger — landed on Pocatello, Idaho. Moving there on her 21st birthday, she rented an apartment and enrolled at Idaho State University, where she studied speech and audio pathology.

While she succeeded academically, she soon ran out of money and made the decision to move back to her hometown of Port Matilda, Pennsylvania, and enrolled at Penn State to continue her education. Unsure of what to study, she enrolled in the Division of Undergraduate Studies and took an introductory IST class with assistant teaching professor Alison Murphy.

“Dr. Murphy’s course was so interesting, and I realized how broad and how much there was to learn about technology that I fell in love,” said Miles. “I decided that’s where I want to be, and [I wanted to be] involved with a degree that’s constantly changing and evolving.”

A unique journey

As Miles’ interest in and passion for designing and developing technology grew, so did her desire to help others. She ultimately became a learning assistant (LA) for Murphy, and currently serves in that role for Jeff Rimland, assistant teaching professor.

Being an LA for more than one professor is quite unique in the college, but the faculty she supports know she’s up to the task.

“Learning assistants have many challenging jobs, such as providing students with help on the correct approach to solving a problem without giving away the solution outright,” said Rimland. “Andrea excels at finding creative approaches to this, and any other challenge that comes our way.”

Andrea Miles Credit: Jessica Hallman / Penn StateCreative Commons

As an LA, Miles works one-on-one with underclassmen, answering their questions in class and during her office hours. She enjoys helping students understand concepts that she once challenged herself to learn.

“The lightbulb moment is amazing,” she said. “When you’re helping a student and you see this big, happy twinkle come over their face and their eyes, and know it’s because of something you’ve said that led them to that moment. That’s the best feeling. It means you’ve gotten through, you’ve made a connection and passed the information.”

Miles’ ability to create those moments has been strengthened throughout her unique journey.

“She has an interesting background of work, courses and life experience,” explained Rimland, “and she does a truly outstanding job of applying all of these facets of her life toward improving the learning experiences and outcomes of our students.”

Putting people first

Miles makes an impact outside of the College of IST, too. She works as an employee of the Arc of Centre County as a Direct Support Professional, helping individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities navigate daily life.

“They have goals and things that they want that they can’t reach as easily with the tools they were given,” Miles said. “My job is to make sure they can do what they want, like go to the prom, go out on dates, or go to the movies with their friends.”

“I feel like my work with people with disabilities transfers over to everything I do and every person I meet,” she added.

It may seem like there isn’t much connection between her current position at the Arc and her career goal to become a software developer. For Miles, however, the two are closely related.

“With technology, everything that you design has to have the individual user in mind,” she explained. “When I’m working with a person at the Arc, the individual comes first. You have to think about their capabilities and what they can or cannot do, what they want or don’t want. The Arc has given me that perspective that there’s always a person I am working with, there’s always a person behind that software.”

“If you think about human-centered design, there’s nothing more human-centered than focusing on an individual and not their disability,” she added.

While Miles hopes to one day return to the classroom as an educator to pay her knowledge forward to the next generation, she also has her sights set on designing technology and other everyday items to make them easier for people with disabilities to use.

“I would love to connect what I know with helping people with disabilities, to design tech, so it is more usable to my residents and the people I care for and serve,” she said.

Last Updated March 28, 2019