LifeLink provides opportunities for special education students

Story posted December 19, 2012 in News by Alison Shapiro

Abby fiddles with the belt buckle around her khaki pants. She makes sure her shirt is tucked in at all sides around her slim waist. Then she double checks that her nametag is pinned on straight to her navy blue t-shirt.

It is mid-afternoon and just a few hours earlier Abby had a backpack slung over her shoulders like many other students during the school day. Now she starts to pull her long, black hair tightly away from her face and into a ponytail. She secures a blue baseball cap on top of her head and pulls her tied-back do through the opening on the back to complete her work uniform.

She has had a full day of classes and homework, only to begin another one tomorrow, but must get to Redifer Dining Commons where she works the food lines. A burn mark stretched across her forearm acts as a constant reminder of her part-time job.

Abby will work until 9:30 p.m., probably won't get home until 10, and then must get up for another day at school.

Although many students may get tired of having to balance class work, jobs and a social life in college, students like Abby are just lucky to have the opportunity to juggle it all.

Abby is a special education student at Penn State who, because of her disability, would normally have to stay in high school after graduation to finish her education. She would have been stuck in the same hallways, taking classes designed for students younger than she, and would not be around peers her same age.

But thanks to LifeLink, Abby and other special education students in State College have the opportunity to take college classes, socialize with their peers, live on their own, and have a job while learning independence and responsibility.

LifeLink began without any similar model as an example, and continues to be one-of-a-kind program in the country.  It thrusts special needs students into an often overwhelming, chaotic atmosphere they are not used to. But almost all the LifeLink students prefer it to the alternative.

"Their other option is to go back to high school and finish their education there, and none of them wants to do that," said Marla Yukelson, program coordinator of LifeLink. "They want to be here."

LifeLink was introduced on campus 11 years ago by Teri Lindner, a high school special education teacher in the State College Area School District at the time who had previously won the Disney Teacher of the Year award for her commitment to working with special needs students. Lindner established LifeLink to allow disabled students ages 18-21 years old the experience of being a Penn State student while being supervised by special education specialists and volunteer mentors.

Federal law in Pennsylvania requires special needs students to remain in high school until they are 21. Even though they get to walk among their fellow graduates at the end of four years, their diploma is held until they finish their additional education normally only available in the same high school.

But Lindner did not want this. She wanted the opportunity for the students to continue their education in the way any other student would. In her words, "Why shouldn't they?"

The solution lay with Penn State and the quintessential college lifestyle it could provide special needs students. After getting sponsorship from the dean of the College of Education and the director of Special Education at Penn State, Lindner secured a classroom in the HUB-Robeson Center and started the program with about eight of her students from State College Area High School.

Lindner remembers when her high school students first realized a marker of their new status as college students.

"I used to be Mrs. Lindner to them in high school," said Lindner, who has since retired from teaching and LifeLink. "Then they learned that college students can call their professors by their first name, and that was a marker for them to let them know that they are in college now, not high school."

The academic experience is extremely important for LifeLink students who get to sit-in on a myriad of classes offered by the university. LifeLink students are not enrolled as full-time students and do not audit the classes they take for credit. As a result, LifeLink students do not pay tuition. In the beginning, Lindner had to send out emails to professors asking their permission to allow a LifeLink student to be included in a class. Almost all of them agreed, Lindner said.

Most  students in LifeLink take three or four classes a semester. Among the most popular are fitness classes, including yoga, ballroom dancing and walking, as well as women's studies and theatre classes.

LifeLink students complete almost all of the regular coursework, and work is only adapted for their level if necessary. Lindner said most of them are more than capable of getting the work done just like anyone else.

The classroom experience benefits not only the LifeLink students, but also the university as a whole.

"[LifeLink students] are breaking some stereotypes in these classes," Lindner said. "Hundreds of [Penn State] students now have experienced someone with a disability in their class . . . ."

Although Lindner no longer works with LifeLink, the program continues to thrive with the help of people like Yukelson, the program coordinator, who wants special education students to have a successful, positive college experience that they otherwise would not have had offered to them.

"It was not a position I came looking for," Yukelson said. "It kind of came looking for me, but I'm very thankful."

Yukelson, who has a degree in early childcare education, was a teacher in the State College Area School District for several years and then a substitute teacher in special education classrooms at Park Forest Middle School.

She instantly fell in love working among special needs students and remained at Park Forest for 11 years while also getting her master's in special education from Penn State. Eventually, she was offered a position at LifeLink and was eager to take it.

"I love working with kids, and ability is all in the eye of the beholder," Yukelson said. "Everyone can do what they want to do with their potential."

In the LifeLink classroom on the third floor of the HUB, a giant whiteboard displays each of her student's schedules for every day of the week. Scribbled in various colors are the students' names, the titles of their classes, what time it starts and then a second name of the mentor who will attend classes with them.

Lindner knew when she started this program that she wanted Penn State students to act as mentors. She didn't want older adults who were not in college to try and teach special needs students what it is like to be in college.

During classes, mentors must accompany a LifeLink student. Mentors sit with them, help to take notes and then walk the student back to the HUB classroom where they can either help with homework or eat lunch with them. Mentors are not only there to supervise students getting to and from class, but also to act as another college peer who the LifeLink students can look up to and get help from.

Lindner has been impressed over the years with the impact that mentors can provide.

"Penn State students don't understand the power they have to change and shape lives, especially of these students," Lindner said.

Abby is taking a sign language class this semester and is glad she has a mentor to help her though the class that is sometimes hard to keep up with.

"[The class] is hard because they go so fast, but my mentor is learning with me," Abby said.  

More than 160 volunteers are in the program this semester, along with one intern.

Many of the mentors are students of the College of Education who use LifeLink to fulfill service hours for their major. But many them return to volunteer every semester because they realize what a different giving their time makes for the LifeLink students.

"A lot of [mentors] realize that they're giving a little bit of their time, but what the students are getting is immeasurable," Yukelson said.

Crystalen Espinal, a senior majoring in Rehabilitation and Human Services, said the  good feeling of being a mentor to these students never gets old.

"Out of anything else I could do, this is where I would be," Espinal said. "I love working with students who appreciate what I'm doing."

On a recent day, her LifeLink student is proudly waving around a green sheet of paper where she records her weight and reps at the gym. She smiles as other LifeLink students and mentors congratulate her and jokingly pinch her biceps to feel the results of her hard work. Espinal waits in the corner, lacing up her own sneakers to work out as well.

Brianna Macmillan, a freshman majoring in Bio-behavioral Health, has been a volunteer for only two weeks but already loves the students, in particular their reactions when they accomplish something as simple as a homework problem.

"When they do something they know is right, they get so happy and excited," Macmillan said. "They're normal people, just different."

Every morning, transition class is held in the classroom. This morning, as the clock inches towards 8:30, LifeLink students start sitting in couches and bean bag sacks arranged in a circle. In the spare minutes before transition, they discuss what everyone did over the weekend.

One of the students celebrated his birthday with a barbeque and couldn't help but boast about the good food at the party. Other students congratulated the LifeLink intern, Nate Cadogan, who is also a member of the football team and fresh off the field from the Penn State-Iowa game.

Transition class is a time for Yukelson to address any issues that have come up from the students' professors, mentors and employers.  Oftentimes in the transition, class Yukelson will discuss appropriate behavior for students.  She reminds them that they can't fall asleep in class or not take notes.

By 9 a.m., students start dispersing from the sitting area.

Mentors trickle in with backpacks and books ready to pick up their LifeLink students and walk to the first class of the day. Other students stay in the classroom to work on homework, spreading out to either the round wooden tables placed through the room or the plush couches and chairs.  A hush settles over the classroom as the students keep their eyes glued to laptop screens, dworking through problems and questions of various subjects. Mentors sit by giving words of encouragement or explaining a problem.

Richa Lal, a junior majoring in Health Policy and Administration, said her favorite subject to work on with the students is math because they are all generally good at the subject and she enjoys watching their progress.

"Students get disgruntled when they can't remember something, but then being able to work with them and put a little gold star next to the problem and see them smile is very rewarding," Lal said.

Lal feels like she has been working with LifeLink students for several years, even though she just started as a mentor this semester. Lal attended to State College Area High School where all of the LifeLink students come from. She has had special needs students in her classes since elementary school and can easily tell a difference between them now and when they were in public school.

"They always had a guardian 24/7, but now there is more freedom and independence for them," Lal said. "They are much more comfortable talking to other people now."

Just before noon, LifeLink students will get ready for their favorite part of the day: lunch.

A huddle of hungry, eager students and mentors make their way down the stairs and stop at the first table in the Sbarro dining room. LifeLink has been eating lunch at Sbarro since Lindner worked in the program. Linder said lunch is where the most valuable skills are learned by students.

"All of a sudden, they are in the mix of things and socializing in a real way,” Linder said. “They never thought they would get to do that.”

Lunch is a time of easy conversation between mouthfuls of food. Some students unpack sandwiches, carrots, grapes and chips out of lunchboxes. Other students pull cash out of their pocket to buy a slice of pizza or hamburger and french fries.

On this day, all the male mentors and students just happen to be sitting at one end of the table and the girls are at the other. Students exaggerate the space between them, jokingly craning their necks back and forth to hear someone.

LifeLink students almost unanimously say that the mentors make the program more enjoyable.

"My favorite part of LifeLink is hanging out with the mentors and making new friends," Riley said.

Riley enjoys the classes he is taking this semester, which include a World War II history class and Coping with College, a seminar class usually reserved for varsity athletes but which has been open to LifeLink students since Linder started the program.

But he has realized things aren't always easy.

"The hardest part about college is getting through the week," Riley said. "But my mentors say, 'Don't get stressed, Riley' or 'You can do it.' That really helps."

Lindner said difficulties are different for all the LifeLink students. However, there is one common problem that is almost always evident for students stuydebt the program.

"At the beginning, [students] must adjust to the reality of what it means to be a college student. They fear, will I fit in? But we try to give them a cocoon when they first come here and then they slowly start to break out," Lindner said.

After they have completed the program, it is up to the students what to do. Students stay in LifeLink until they are 21, or until they feel they no longer want to continue. Those who want to leave LifeLink before  they are 21 have to return to high school in order to receive their diploma, which is given to all of the LifeLink students who graduate the program at 21. But few students want to be back in high school, Linder said. 

Some use LifeLink to give college a try and see if they like it enough to continue with it as a fully enrolled student after turning 21.

Riley is one of those students. He loves music and hopes to be a disk jockey someday.

Other students also know exactly what they want to do and plan to have a career.

"After LifeLink I want to work in a nursing home for the elderly because I really care about old people who can't do stuff for themselves," Aurielle said.

No matter what they choose to do after LifeLink, there is no question that LifeLink has had a major impact on their lives.

Yukelson still remembers the time she went with a new student to get a Penn State ID card, which all LifeLink students can have. He went with his twin sister, who did not have a disability. The student stood in line, got his picture made, and then waited patiently to get his card.  There on the card was his picture next to the familiar Nittany Lion mascot.  

He couldn't stop hugging his sister and both of them were overcome with emotion.

"It was such a touching moment," Yukelson said, pausing as she recalled the memory. "The joy on his face still gives me chills to think about. He just had so much joy that he was actually a college student."

(This story was written for Comm 462 Feature Writing.)