Penn State Intercom......October 10, 2002

LifeLink PSU helps special education students experience University life

By Joseph Savrock
College of Education

LifeLink_wMpofu_2Mature high school students with disabilities can benefit from a new program developed and implemented through a collaboration of the University and the State College Area School District. LifeLink PSU provides district students with special needs between the ages of 18 and 21 an opportunity to interact with students of their own age in an environment that is socially and academically conducive to continued growth.

Two Penn State College of Education entities -- the Rehabilitation Services Program and the Special Education Program -- worked in cooperation with the school district's Department of Special Education to initiate the LifeLink PSU project, which started this academic year. LifeLink PSU activities take place on the University Park campus, where a central classroom has been established in 301 HUB-Robeson Center.

The high school participants are accompanied to appropriate classes, lunch, club meetings and a variety of social functions by volunteer mentors, most of whom are University students. Other activities include holding jobs on campus; using recreation and athletic facilities; and attending athletic events.

Students entering LifeLink PSU already have attended high school for four years. High school students in special education are eligible for public education until the age of 21. Typically, students who remain in high school until age 21 will have attended for a total of eight years, twice as long as students in the regular education population.

"This could mean being in high school for seven years with students who are much younger," said David Monk, dean of the College of Education. "LifeLink PSU offers students an opportunity to interact with age-appropriate peers right here on campus."

By continuing their high school education in a university setting, LifeLink PSU students experience enhanced educational and social opportunities. Many prominent educators emphasize the importance of appropriate student culture as a critical component for successful transition to adult life.

Sharon Salter, assistant director of special education in the State College Area School District, said, "One of the unique aspects of this program is that our students are actually attending carefully selected Penn State classes." Patrick Moore, the district's director of special education, remarked that "the Penn State faculty have been welcoming our students as guests in their classrooms. This is an exciting opportunity and collaboration."

The University's students, in serving as mentors, likewise benefit from the program. Their hours with LifeLink PSU count toward University program requirements for volunteering with special populations. Elias Mpofu, associate professor of rehabilitation services education, commented, "University students taking the 'Medical Information' class, as well as the 'Job Development' and 'Employment of People with Disabilities' class, are excited at the prospect of learning more about disabilities by actually interacting with people with disabilities in a variety of contexts. I require my students to volunteer time toward the enfranchisement of people with disabilities in our community."

LifeLink PSU continues to seek not only college students, but faculty and staff as well, to volunteer as mentors.

"A volunteer can spend as much or as little time as is available," said Teri Lindner, a teacher in the program and former Disney Teacher of the Year. "There are many ways to be involved with a LifeLink PSU student, such as accompanying the student to a Penn State class, playing video games or pool, tutoring or going swimming, ice skating or weight lifting."

Cory Baker, a University senior in the rehabilitation services program, plans to graduate in December and is the program's first intern. He attends classes with the LifeLink PSU students.

"This is an excellent opportunity for students who wouldn't normally have the chance to be a college student," Baker said. "What a great chance for an intern to work in a different setting. You never know what to expect next. The students never cease to amaze me with the abilities that they have. They are doing things I never expected them to do."

Sandy Meyer, coordinator of student athletic programs, teaches a freshman seminar titled "Coping with College."

"LifeLink PSU is a mutually beneficial program for both the SCASD students and the student athletes," she said. "It is a wonderful opportunity for the SCASD students to experience the college environment so that, if they some day choose to attend a university or college, they will have a good idea what to expect."

The program is popular among its high school participants. Jason Fish enjoys taking Meyers' "Coping with College" course, as well as "Personal Defense" and "Persuasive Speaking."

"When you're on campus," said Fish, "you have the freedom to express yourself. I like being in classes, because we're with real college students.

"Penn State food is better than most schools," he continued. "I can get extra pickles on my cheeseburger if I want! Professors make classes fun. They are interested in what they're teaching and they enjoy their jobs."

Another student, Jenny Kunkle, is taking three courses: "Coping with College," "Yoga" and "Basic Theater Makeup."

She said, "I like going to classes with my mentor, Cory. He is a college student, so I feel like a college student. Penn State makes me happy and I have so much fun in class. Being here on campus makes me feel grown-up and more independent. I didn't think I would know where to go, but I am learning. I guess I am learning like all the other students. They look lost, too."

Luke Aiello enjoys the "Coping with College" course. He said, "I like that if someone is late to class, the teacher makes them sing. One of the singers sounded like the Back Street Boys."

Lena Purdum is enrolled in "Ballroom Dancing" and Campus Choir. When asked if she likes the Penn State atmosphere, she exclaimed with thumbs up, "I love it!"

For information about doing an internship or to volunteer as a mentor, call Lindner at (814) 208-2948.

Joseph Savrock can be reached at