Penn State alumna’s gift to support inclusive educational programs

Stephanie Koons
July 29, 2020

Phylis Bolno, who received a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from Penn State’s College of Education in 1972, has never taught professionally. She and her husband, Gary, a graduate of the College of Health and Human Development, run a financial consulting and insurance business in their home city of Scottsdale, Arizona. Nonetheless, Bolno has a deep appreciation for the benefits of a well-rounded education — particularly for individuals with disabilities and other minoritized groups. 

That appreciation is exemplified by her recent ongoing pledge of $9,000 a year to be distributed equally between three programs: WorkLink, a new program in the College of Education for students with intellectual disabilities (ID); the Postbaccalaureate Certificate in Educating Individuals with Autism; and the Social Justice Collaborative and new social justice minor.

“This generous gift from Bolno and her husband, Gary, epitomizes their commitment to social justice, social inclusion and equal opportunity for all,” said Kimberly Lawless, dean of the College of Education. “I am beyond pleased that Phylis’ vision so closely aligns with such important priorities within our college.” 

The inspiration for Bolno’s recent gift began with inquiries about courses or programs offered by the College of Education to educate future teachers of students with autism, and to educate all students about the importance of tolerance among all communities.

Created and overseen by associate professors Wendy Coduti and Allison Fleming, the WorkLink program, a nonresidential, two-year certificate program, provides individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) postsecondary education and employment opportunities comparable to their peers without disabilities. 

“WorkLink students get to do everything their peers are doing, and those opportunities don’t end after high school,” Coduti said. "It’s our job to make sure that integration and opportunity exist for students with disabilities. Creating programs like WorkLink at Penn State is critical (to their success)."

According to Coduti, the funds from Bolno’s gift will initially focus on supporting Penn State students who work with the program as mentors or tutors.

“Without them,” said Coduti, “we wouldn't have a program.”

To help meet the demand for trained special education professionals who can work with people specifically affected with autism, Penn State World Campus has partnered with the College of Education, in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Bureau of Special Education, to offer students an online Postbaccalaureate Certificate in Educating Individuals with Autism.

Through the program, students learn to assess individuals with ASD to provide effective instruction; develop strategies to enhance social, behavioral, communication and academic gains; and strengthen professional skills to work with families. The program also fosters networking with colleagues across the U.S. and abroad.

“With such a sharp increase in the prevalence of ASD, teachers need specialized training to meet the needs of their diverse students, said Pamela Wolfe, associate professor of education and director of the certificate program. “Phylis’ gift, for which we are grateful, will give our students the expertise needed to help them teach students with ASD in schools and in communities.”

Bolno’s interest in social justice originated from interactions with members of the LGBTQ and Black communities, through which she learned about the types of discrimination they had faced in their personal and professional lives.

“It was eye-opening for me,” Bolno said. “I want to be a person who tries to help society. Who is willing to change my views.”

The Social Justice Collaborative, founded by Ashley Patterson and Efraín Marimón, assistant professors in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction; Seria Chatters, adjunct associate professor and director of equity and inclusivity for the State College Area School District (SCASD); and three teachers within the State College Area School District, seeks to increase empathy through the creation of immersive courses and programs about social justice at Penn State and within SCASD. 

The collective’s work entails teaching a Principles of Social Justice class as part of a new Social Justice in Education minor in the College of Education, three social justice courses at the middle- and high-school levels within SCASD, and a Social Justice Summer Institute as part of a high school peer advocates program.

The new minor in the college will require 18 credits, six of which must be fulfilled through nontraditional experiences such as the College of Education’s D.C. Social Justice course, the Philadelphia Urban Education Seminar, the Ecuador Immersion Project or the new Maymester program in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“We’re so excited for the opportunity to expand the reach of our programming,” Patterson said. “This gift allows us to provide financial support for student learning experiences that happen beyond the University Park campus, and to build a network of individuals with similar interests.”

“We are grateful to Phylis,” said Lawless. “And also to Ashley Patterson, Wendy Coduti, Allison Fleming, Pam Wolfe and other members of the College of Education faculty whose partnership with the Office of Development enables us to engage alumni and friends like her.”

This gift will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit



(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 27, 2020