LifeLink PSU changes lives, inspires students

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Sharing a college classroom with a student with special needs is uncommon. But at Penn State, it is an experience many students embrace.

“It was something I have not witnessed before -- a student with special needs in a college classroom,” said Anthony Alberici-Bainbridge. “And he was just a great kid. He was always super happy to see everybody and just happy to be there.”

Alberici-Bainbridge, a senior majoring in rehabilitation and human services in the College of Education, is referring to Alek Masters, a special-needs senior at State College Area School District (SCASD) who sits in on Penn State courses through a unique program called LifeLink PSU.

What began as a small partnership between the SCASD and Penn State’s College of Education, LifeLink PSU is now in its 14th year and sees more than 200 volunteers a semester. Located on the third floor of the HUB-Robeson Center, the program serves and supports special-needs students ages 18 to 21, an age range where many of these students fall behind in public education, as they gain the life skills and independence necessary to be successful in life.

"This program builds these students’ confidence and self-esteem just because they know they’re not just at any college -- they’re at a great university like Penn State."

— Amy Schneiderhand,
LifeLink PSU mentor

“If it weren’t for this program, these students would be in high school for seven years. They wouldn’t be with their same-age peers and that is one of the main driving forces of this program’s creation,” said Marla Yukelson, program coordinator and learning support teacher. “The purpose of this program is to give these students the opportunity to be with their peers because when you have a 20-year-old taking a class with a 16-year-old, they are worlds apart.”

Because students with special needs are eligible to stay in the public education system through their 21st birthday, many do not get to advance with their peers. Instead, they remain in a traditional high school setting with students as young as 14. Recognizing this as a real problem, Teri Lindner, founder of LifeLink PSU and former SCASD special education teacher, had the idea to build a partnership with the College of Education to provide these students with a transition experience that would help them grow to their full potential.

“The University is such a huge part of this community,” Lindner said. “We really thought that the students should be able to not only negotiate their way around the University, but they should feel comfortable in doing so. Plus, they deserve the opportunity to be with their peers and to learn what college is like.”

With encouragement from the district’s director of special education, Lindner and her colleagues approached David Monk, dean of the College of Education, who immediately agreed to help start a program.

“LifeLink PSU is a remarkable program,” Dean Monk said. “Not only does the program give advanced educational opportunities for students with disabilities, it also allows our own students to make a meaningful contribution and care for the well-being of others. I am thrilled to see the program grow more successful with each passing year.”

The student experience

Before enrolling in the LifeLink PSU program, students must submit an application, letters of recommendation and transcripts -- similar to the college application process -- to the director of special education at the school district.

“Our students know that only select students get to come here,” Yukelson said.  “So they know that there is a responsibility to be a good steward and representative of the program. And they’ve all done that fantastically.”

Aside from the application materials, the program also requires all students to have paid or volunteer work experience while in the program. Many of the students work part-time jobs while also volunteering for various community organizations.

"LifeLink PSU is a remarkable program. Not only does the program give advanced educational opportunities for students with disabilities, it also allows our own students to make a meaningful contribution and care for the well-being of others."

—David H. Monk, dean of the College of Education

For the past six months, Masters has held a position with The Nittany Lion Inn as a dishwasher. Senior Tanya Roberts is employed by Berkey Creamery, and also volunteers alongside her classmate Austin Bowen at Discovery Space, a science museum in State College that encourages children to learn more about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“We try to help them develop the skills they need so that when they do graduate, they can transition into a job that is something that will be life-long or sustaining for them,” Yukelson explained.

Students must also follow LifeLink PSU rules related to personal character and stewardship. “We talk a lot with the students about the privilege of being here because if they don’t follow the rules, the option is always there to send them back to the high school. And, they know that,” Yukelson said.  “They know that they’re guests on campus and they represent our program. They might see Penn State students sleeping in class or using their phones during class, but they know that type of behavior is not acceptable for our students.”

LifeLink PSU senior Josiah Walter takes pride in the fact that he was chosen to represent the program. “Representing LifeLink PSU properly is my favorite thing,” he said. “And to have the chance to be at college.”

The mentor experience

The success of LifeLink PSU is due in large part to its many student volunteers, also known as mentors. Of the 239 volunteers serving for the spring semester, more than 50 are from the College of Education and have completed a total of 2,620 volunteer hours. Mentors serve in a variety of capacities but primarily accompany students to their Penn State classes.

Coming from a family of educators, Amy Schneiderhan always knew she wanted to be a teacher. A junior majoring in elementary education with a minor in special education, she had never heard of LifeLink PSU when she was assigned to complete her field experience with the class. Not knowing what to expect, she was nervous about being in a nontraditional classroom environment.

“I loved it!” she said. “It was such an awesome experience and made me want to go back as a mentor.”

Living with the effects of ADHD for much of her life, Schneiderhan feels she can relate to the students she helps serve. “Just knowing that I’m with students that also struggle, that really attracted me to the program, because as a future teacher that is one of my passions,” she said. “And I just love to give these students an equal opportunity to learn.”

Schneiderhan now accompanies a freshman LifeLink PSU student to HDFS 229: Infant and Child Development. She assists with note-taking and assignments, and helps the student acclimate to the Penn State community. She also takes time to eat lunch in the HUB with her mentee and other LifeLink PSU students.

"It’s an amazing feeling and an amazing experience to know that this program is giving them something that they can be proud of for the rest of their lives."

— Anthony Alberici-Bainbridge,
LifeLink PSU mentor

“The students love going to class,” Schneiderhan said. “This program builds these students’ confidence and self-esteem just because they know they’re not just at any college -- they’re at a great university like Penn State.”

Mentor Kelcee Benzel agrees.

“I think they’re even more appreciative to be able to sit in on these classes,” she said of the LifeLink PSU students. “As Penn State students, we can take it for granted. But these students are invited to come in and they’re getting the chance to experience college like the rest of us do.”

In addition to being a mentor, Benzel, a junior studying early childhood education, also works with the students outside of the classroom.

CheerLink is an extracurricular activity that provides LifeLink PSU students the opportunity to support the Penn State community through cheering. Benzel, along with other mentors, created a three-minute routine that they have been teaching to the students since January.

“We practice about once or twice a week and we do the regular cheerleading formations, and they have a jump and a stunt at the end of the routine,” Benzel explained. “We started teaching it in chunks and they have it down now.”

Through CheerLink, the students have performed at University basketball and baseball events as well as competitively at the Jamfest Cheer and Dance competition in Pittsburgh on April 12. Most recently, the team performed for actress Lauren Potter, who portrays a cheerleader with Down Syndrome on the television show Glee, when she visited campus on April 16.

“These students are just a fun group to work with,” Benzel said. “They have their own way of telling jokes and their own quirkiness. I love the moments of laughter I have with them.”

Benzel is not the only one who enjoys their time together. The LifeLink PSU students’ eyes light up whenever their mentors’ names are mentioned.

“My favorite thing about LifeLink PSU is being with my mentors and the interns,” Roberts said. “I like socializing with them during lunch and Cheerlink.”

Alberici-Bainbridge also enjoys working with the students outside of the classroom. These students have the ability to achieve their full potential, he said. And, it is in a gym setting where he believes their abilities can best be tested and measured.

“The program has a time slot throughout the day that students are able to go with mentors to work out,” Alberici-Bainbridge explained. “That’s always been my favorite thing to do — to watch the students achieve something they’re not typically pushed at.”

“They make great progress and I get to actually show them a tangible piece of paper that shows them that progress,” he said. “You can see the pride in their eyes and how happy they are and excited to know that they’re doing something that they might not have done before.”

Going to White Building is one of Masters’ favorite parts of the program. “I’ve been at the program for three years and the one thing I really like is doing outside stuff with the program,” he said as he flexed his biceps to show the effects of his labors. “I get to learn different things and abilities.”

A life-changing experience

When Alberici-Bainbridge transferred to Penn State from Bloomsburg University, he switched his major twice before settling on a career path. After spending a semester in the Smeal College of Business, he decided to pursue his interest in fitness and enrolled as a kinesiology major. During this time, he also began volunteering with LifeLink PSU. He now looks forward to graduating from the RHS program this fall and continuing his education as a graduate student at Regent University, where he will study special education.

“LifeLink PSU changed my entire life goals,” he said. “I just fell in love with it. It’s an amazing program and the students and staff are phenomenal, and it really just opened my eyes.”

"I get to do the Penn State Pep Band and most of the kids here don’t get to do that. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

— Austin Bowen,
LifeLink PSU student

In high school, Alberici-Bainbridge, like many others, never had the opportunity to interact with the special-needs class. Not only was the class small, serving fewer than 20 students, he explained, but the students with special needs “were never really integrated into the general population. So I never really had that exposure or the experience to understand that this is something I might like to do.”

“The experience has been life-changing,” he said with a bright smile. “I would like to think that where I go, I can bring this innovation to wherever it is that I land after I get my degree and hopefully make changes.”

It’s not just the volunteers with whom the program has a lasting impression. For the students it serves, LifeLink PSU gives them experiences that many other students with special needs never have.

Like other LifeLink PSU students, Bowen has had the opportunity to sit in on Penn State classes such as KINES 090B: Intro to Team Sports — Basketball; DANCE 222: Beginning Hip Hop Dance; and campus choir. But his favorite part of being a LifeLink PSU student is playing in Penn State’s Pep Band.

“I get to do the Penn State Pep Band and most of the kids here don’t get to do that,” Bowen said with pride. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Bowen, who plays the cymbals, is grateful to Gregory Drane, newly appointed director of the Penn State Blue Band, for the opportunity to play at athletic events such as basketball, volleyball and hockey games.

“He made me a good cymbal player,” Bowen said of Drane. “He taught me how to not look at music and now I don’t look at my music [when I play].”

LifeLink PSU senior Nicole Tetzlaff is also appreciative of the opportunities the program has allotted. She works for The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel as a member of their hospitality services team, a position she will continue following graduation, and is also a talented artist -- she has enrolled in every art class a nonmajor can take.

“I’ve taken a lot of art classes,” she said.

She underestimates her abilities, Yukelson said, explaining that Tetzlaff makes her own costumes and even came to the class’s Halloween party dressed as Elsa from Disney’s Frozen, in a costume she made from scratch.

For all who enter the LifeLink PSU classroom, whether a teacher, an intern, a volunteer or a student, one thing is certain -- you leave a changed person.

“Being placed with LifeLink PSU couldn’t have been more perfect for me,” Schneiderhan said. “I love it.”

LifeLink PSU student Paul Kleit has spent only one year with the program and is not ready to graduate.

“I will miss it,” he said.

That sentiment is shared by all of LifeLink PSU’s graduating seniors and is true of Alberici-Bainbridge as well.

“The greatest part is not just interacting with the students but interacting with them for such a long period of time that you are actually connected to them,” he said, noting that he began his Penn State career with this class and will be graduating with them as well.

“You actually do have that attachment to be proud and happy for them, and to see them grow. It’s an amazing feeling and an amazing experience to know that this program is giving them something that they can be proud of for the rest of their lives.”

Last Updated May 04, 2015