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College of Education > News and Publications > 2015: 07-09 news > Summer Academy prepares students with visual impairments for college life

Summer Academy prepares students with visual impairments for college life

The Summer Academy for the Blind and Visually Impaired helps high school students experience college life and teach them that anything is possible.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the second year, the College of Education, in conjunction with the College of Health and Human Development and the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN), has partnered with the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS) to host the Summer Academy for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired. The three-week academic program welcomes a maximum of 25 high school students each year from across the Commonwealth and prepares them for life after high school.

walking stick help
A Summer Academy staff member helps two students adapt to using a white cane to enhance independent mobility.

“Our whole philosophy is to teach students how to be successful college students,” said Shelly Faust-Jones, vocational rehabilitation specialist for special programs for BBVS. “Our students are cognitively right on target and are certainly capable of being successful in college. However, they are lacking in many of the soft skills that are necessary to be successful.”

Individuals who are blind or visually impaired fall behind in the development of certain skills because of the well-meaning assistance they receive throughout their lives, Faust-Jones explained. “The education system provides aides for these students so when they get to college and those supports are not in place, the students flounder because they are not able to attend to their own personal needs.”

It is those needs that are addressed during the Summer Academy. Students gain confidence by learning tactical skills such as navigation technology to assist with independent mobility. They have the opportunity to utilize the CATA bus system and are free to explore the University Park campus as well as downtown State College.

Students also learn vocational skills such as how to do laundry, coursework organization and time management, and cooking. They live in student resident halls, eat in the dining halls, have access to University resources such as career services and library services and also have the opportunity to attend  Penn State summer courses.

Prior to 2014, the Summer Academy was held at the Hiram G. Andrews Center in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a technical institute that provides post-secondary education to individuals with disabilities. However, organizers of the Summer Academy believed that in order to prepare for and understand life as a college student, the program must take place on an actual college campus.

With the help of Jim Herbert, professor of counselor education and rehabilitation and human services, the Summer Academy became another community partnership for the College of Education.

“We were already working with the State College Area School District on the LifeLink PSU program,” Herbert said. “So we saw this opportunity as a kind of extension to that partnership with the focus being to help students with disabilities acclimate to college life.”

After coordinating the logistics of hosting the Summer Academy on the University Park campus with other units including the College of Health and Human Development, the program was able to make its big move to Penn State.

“It is an amazing program and, to my knowledge, one of the few in the United States,” Herbert said of the Summer Academy. “And moving it to a college campus just made sense.”

In addition to organizing the program, Herbert has several students who work for the Summer Academy as staff members and resident assistants.

Learn more about the experiences students attending the Summer Academy for the Blind and Visually Impaired have on Penn State's University Park campus.

“You only know what you know,” he said. “This program gives Penn State students a chance to work with individuals with a particular disability and learn from them. It makes them better people and more effective professionals. It’s a win-win for both sides.”

“Just about everything about the program has changed because of our move to Penn State,” Faust-Jones said. “It’s a much better program now because students are able to move from building to building, and truly experience a college campus.”

A former resident assistant at both program locations, Luis Fontanez, Jr. agrees that moving the program to the University Park campus has had countless benefits for the students.

“Here at Penn State, it is a more authentic college experience,” he said of the program. “The Hiram G. Andrews Center is an institute that has been built for and around persons with disabilities so the center is very accommodating. It is all on one floor, very easy to navigate and you don’t have to go outside to go to any of your classes. Being at Penn State allows the students to be immersed in that authentic, true college experience where they have to learn how to be independent.”

Unfortunately, the Summer Academy did not exist when Fontanez graduated high school and his transition to a college was not smooth.

“Speaking from my own personal experience as a youth-in-transition without the Summer Academy, my experience going to college was very rough. It was very shoot-from-the-hip and I had to figure it out as I went along,” said Fontanez, a current second-year master’s student in the counselor education program (rehabilitation counseling option).

“The strategies and the tools and skills that the summer academy provides its students as they are participating in the program are what youth-in-transition who are planning to transition to higher education need to be able to survive on a college campus. There’s orientation. There’s advocacy. There’s rehab teaching to learn cooking skills, laundry skills, organization, bill paying. There’s the familiarization with new pieces of assistive technology that will help these students be successful on a campus environment.”

It’s the little things, he said, that students don’t think about until they are in a specific situation. With the Summer Academy, students think about things in advance and are prepared for what to expect.

Being able to compare and contrast my experience as a client of the BBVS and going into college and then seeing how these students and the skills that they’re being taught and their experiences of starting off their freshman years, it’s worlds apart,” Fontanez said.

But the Summer Academy isn’t just about preparing for college and adulthood by going to daily seminars and lectures. In addition to learning how to use a mobility cane, reading campus and town maps, and using innovative software such as BlindSquare, a GPS app specifically designed for the visually impaired, students also get to participate in different team-building exercises.

Two students who are visually impaired learn how to bake and operate a range oven as part of the Summer Academy for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“Team-building is really important,” said Marcia Wazeter, lead orientation and mobility specialist for the Summer Academy. “We have 24 students from all over who don’t know each other so we have a series of activities that we plan to get them engaged with each other.”  

Students also get to enjoy Penn State’s many facilities.

“Students have a wonderful opportunity to participate in recreational activities at Shavers Creek,” Wazeter said. There, students use the high ropes course, rock climbing wall and are also taught how to use a canoe and upright it once it has been tipped over, Wazeter added.

“Our move to Penn State has been absolutely wonderful,” Faust-Jones said. “We are extremely happy that our program is here, and it just keeps getting better and better each year.”

By Jessica Buterbaugh (July 2015)