Longtime donors endow rehabilitation and human services graduate award

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In 1955, Ralph Pacinelli was completing his student-teaching practicum and nearing graduation at Villanova University when he had a frightening realization — working as a classroom teacher was not what he wanted to do with his life.

“I found that one-on-one counseling and guidance sessions with students focusing on personal, educational and career goals were challenging and produced for me a higher level of accomplishment and satisfaction,” Pacinelli said.

To fulfill that need, he knew he would need to obtain a master’s degree and a certification in counseling. When he visited Penn State’s University Park campus with the Villanova baseball team that same year, he knew right away that Penn State was where he wanted to earn those credentials.

“Four days after graduating from Villanova, I was a summer-school graduate student in the master’s counseling program at Penn State,” he said.

Pacinelli was just settling into his role as a counselor education graduate student when Kenneth Hylbert, a professor emeritus in the counseling education program, recruited him for the new rehabilitation counseling program. Now known as clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling, the program trains students to work with individuals with disabilities in various human services and clinical settings.

“I had experience working with young people with disabilities in a summer recreation program in my hometown and I found that experience to be worthwhile and rewarding,” he said. “Little did I know that on that hot July afternoon, Dr. Hylbert would be handing me the rest of my life on a silver platter, and I was alert and receptive enough to take it.”

"In vocational rehabilitation, Penn State is known for its innovation, creativity, high-quality instruction and relevant field-oriented research. I was the recipient of an education provided by the best and brightest faculty in the rehabilitation field."

— Ralph Pacinelli, alumnus and donor

That day, he and five others were offered an inaugural federal grant that would cover tuition, books and fees in exchange for a promise to work in the public program of vocational rehabilitation for four years — two years for each year of support. For Pacinelli, it was the start of a more than 50-year career serving individuals with disabilities at the state, regional and national levels. 

“In vocational rehabilitation, Penn State is known for its innovation, creativity, high-quality instruction and relevant field-oriented research. I was the recipient of an education provided by the best and brightest faculty in the rehabilitation field,” said Pacinelli, who later returned to campus and earned his doctorate in rehabilitation education in 1968.

Now, Pacinelli wants to pay it forward and give students the same opportunities Professor Hylbert gave him nearly 60 years ago.

He and his wife Patricia have established the Ralph N. and Patricia P. Pacinelli Graduate Award. The $100,000 endowment will fund an annual award that will be given to one or more graduate students in the College of Education, or successor academic unit, who intend to work in federal, state or local agencies and community rehabilitation programs. To be eligible, students must exhibit outstanding counseling and advocacy skills among special needs populations by empowering individuals with disabilities to achieve independence, economic self-sufficiency and full inclusion in their community. 

“Through this award, Pat and I hope that each recipient who successfully completes the prescribed course of study in clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling is accorded the same opportunities and options for growth and development that we enjoyed in over 50 years of satisfying employment in the rehabilitation industry,” Pacinelli said. 

Pacinelli started his career as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation and later was promoted to statewide supervisor of staff development. He then joined the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) as a vocational rehabilitation program specialist before being named director of education and research for the International Association of Rehabilitation Facilities. 

He returned to HEW in 1972 and remained with the department — and later the Department of Education following the dissolution of HEW —  serving in various capacities until he retired in 2005 as the regional commissioner for the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration in Philadelphia and Atlanta. In 1990, he received the Penn State College of Education Leadership and Service Award and was named a Penn State Alumni Fellow in 1994. 

“Dr. Pacinelli is a great role model and his achievements provide a great example of the contributions graduates from our program are able to make,” said Liza Conyers, coordinator of the clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling program.

"Our students often make significant sacrifices in time and resources to pursue their graduate degree so that they can help individuals with disabilities pursue their life and vocational goals. Receiving both the encouragement stated in Dr. Pacinelli’s legacy statement as well as the pragmatic assistance with financial support is deeply appreciated."

— Liza Conyers, associate professor of education and coordinator of clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling

“Our students often make significant sacrifices in time and resources to pursue their graduate degree so that they can help individuals with disabilities pursue their life and vocational goals,” she said. “Receiving both the encouragement stated in Dr. Pacinelli’s legacy statement as well as the pragmatic assistance with financial support is deeply appreciated.”

In addition to the $100,000 endowment, the Pacinellis also contributed $6,500 to the Rehabilitation and Human Services program. Those funds, Conyers said, help to support student participation at the PA Rehabilitation Association’s Professional Development Institute. The program faculty also plan to use the funds to explore additional learning opportunities for students, including the development of an annual disability policy institute.

“I am deeply appreciative of Dr. Pacinelli’s gift and the years of time and expertise that he has devoted to our programs as a member of our advisory board,” Conyers said. “I have worked with him in the past to develop a disability policy program in Harrisburg and look forward to continuing these efforts with him and other members of the PA rehabilitation community. Given the many funding restraints, these efforts would not be possible without the financial support from Dr. Pacinelli.”

The generosity of the Pacinellis is not new to the college — they have contributed financial support to the College of Education for 34 consecutive years.

“When personal assets through employment and investments became available, Pat and I wanted to show our appreciation to Penn State and the faculty that provided us a solid education in a field that held promise for earning life-sustaining resources and abundant personal and professional satisfaction,” Pacinelli said.

Pacinelli said he hopes the award will help to alleviate the financial stress that accompanies being a graduate student.

“With the costs of higher education slowly but steadily escalating, the financial support provided by the Pacinelli Graduate Award can lessen the burden of expenses and debt on the student recipient,” he said. “Pat and I are privileged to play a small and direct role in supporting the educational and vocational goals and dreams of a person interested in and committed to the field of vocational rehabilitation.”

The first recipients of the Pacinelli Graduate Award will be announced in spring 2018. Subsequent awards will be presented in the fall semesters. For all recipients, Pacinelli’s primary wish is that they enjoy their professional and personal life to the fullest, just like he and his wife have.

“If a recipient remains in the vocational rehabilitation field long enough to retire from it, we are confident that they will experience enough satisfaction to fill a lifetime,” he said.

Gifts from Penn State’s alumni and friends have been essential to the success of the University’s historic land-grant mission to serve the public good. To fulfill that mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections, "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence" is focused on the three key imperatives of a public university. Private support will keep the door to higher education open and enable students to graduate on time and on track to success; create transformative experiences on Penn State campuses and around the globe that tap the full potential of Penn Staters to make a difference; and impact the world through discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

To learn more about making a contribution to the College of Education, contact Simon Corby, director of development, at sgc12@psu.edu.

Media Contacts: 

Jessica Buterbaugh

Work Phone: 
814-865-1005

marketing communications specialist,
College of Education

Last Updated November 08, 2017