This summer, high school students have tackled rock walls, navigated rope courses and traversed rivers by canoe at the Summer Academy.
Exploits such as these may be difficult for any adventurer, but these students faced an additional challenge: All are visually impaired.
The Summer Academy is a three-week program for Pennsylvania high school students who are blind or visually impaired and is free for qualifying students. It is aimed at strengthening students’ independence and self-advocacy skills to help them succeed in college or wherever life takes them after high school.
After five years at the Hiram G. Andrews Center in Johnstown, the Summer Academy has moved to Penn State’s University Park campus.
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“HGAC was wonderful to us,” program coordinator Shelly Faust-Jones said. “It was excellent to start the program, but here we can take advantage of real college situations. Penn State has just opened up their arms to us. They have been very welcoming and have provided us with information that the students need.”
The Summer Academy is sponsored by the colleges of Education and Health and Human Development and partnered with the Pennsylvania Technical Training Assistance Network, from the Department of Special Education.
“We’re trying to join the rehabilitation field and the education field,” Faust-Jones said. “The Summer Academy helps us do that. It’s like win-win for everybody.”
Over the course of the three weeks, the students sleep in Penn State dorms, eat lunch in the commons and have the chance to attend two college classes.
“We had 12 professors reach out and say, yeah, they can sit in on my class,” Faust-Jones said. “Our time schedules could accommodate four, so they have a choice of four different classes. The kids really liked that; it was historic. It was their first college class, so they were all pumped up; it was very cool.”
Program instructor Chris Cowan said the students in the program generally are smart and have the ability to do well in college.
“But what we found before we started this program,” Cowan said, “was they just didn’t have the skills to live on a college campus. They struggle with getting back and forth to classes, cooking their own meals, doing their own laundry.”
What may seem apparent to a person without a visual impairment could make college life nearly impossible for the Summer Academy students.
“So, academically, they could be ready, but they struggle with what to put in your backpack, knowing that you have to carry a backpack with everything in it all day,” Faust-Jones said. “Things like that, that visually, another student who has full sight would see that and say, ‘Oh, everybody’s carrying backpacks,’ but our kids don’t get to see that stuff. This just gives them a heads up on starting their college career.”
After three weeks of the Summer Academy, the goal is to instill confidence in the students that they have the ability to be independent, active members of society.
“When the kids come in, they know no one and many of them are the only person with a visual impairment in their high school,” Faust-Jones said. “When they go home, they’re different kids. They come in one way and they go home very much ready to advocate for themselves, very much more confident and comfortable living life with a visual impairment. The confidence that you see happen in three weeks’ time, it’s just great.”
Activities throughout the program include canoeing, climbing rock walls and maneuvering across the high ropes course at Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center.
In addition to these physical challenges, students practice life skills such as crossing streets safely, time management, using public transportation, navigating campus with a cane, using laundry facilities, shopping for groceries, cooking and balancing a checkbook.
“Yesterday we spent our entire lunch period over at the food lab in Henderson and we made grilled cheese and soup on a stove top and we made cookies,” Summer Academy student Madeline Link, 16, said. “I am honestly very afraid of heated appliances. Even when we have chemistry, I always make my lab partner light the Bunsen burner, so I think it was a really big move for me to come out of my shell and my comfort zone to handle the hot cookie trays, to flip the grilled cheese on the stove and stir the soup.”
Link has a visual impairment called Leber congenital amaurosis and she usually is accompanied by her guide dog, Snowbird.
“It’s a hereditary disorder that causes my cones and rods to not function properly, especially my cones in my case,” Link said. “So I have very poor vision in bright light, I’m color blind and I can’t see detail. I got Snowbird the summer before I started my freshman year. I think he has helped me tremendously in opening doors socially; he’s a great conversation starter. I feel much more safe and independent when I travel.”
Link tries not let her impairment prevent her from living as independently and fully as possible.
“Another thing I think they’ve worked on here a lot is self-advocacy,” Link said. “For example, last week we went to Wal-Mart to purchase the soup that we cooked yesterday. I am unable to read the labels on the soup, so I had to ask assistance from the customer service counter. I was honestly very scared to do it and I must say I was a little embarrassed about having to do it, but it worked out really well. I was able to get the soup and I was able to have a great conversation about my dog.
“I felt really proud of myself when I was finished and even more independent because I had the confidence to seek the help I needed. I’m glad that we had the opportunity to practice that.”
Jacob Morgan, 17, agrees that the program has helped him become more self-reliant.
“I never really worked with a cane before,” Morgan said. “I did for a while, but it didn’t work well. Here, they’re having us use it pretty much all the time whenever we go walking from place to place. I wasn’t good with it when I started; I’m still not very good at it now, but it’s becoming to a bit more natural to use.”
The camp has not only helped Morgan learn more about his visual impairment, but also how to teach others about it.
“In my experience, when I tell people I’m visually impaired, they say, ‘Does that mean you can see or you can’t see?’ ” Morgan said. “People generally think you’re either blind or you can see. I have OK distance vision, but I have bad perception on where things are and I can’t track like a pingpong ball or a Frisbee.
“I think now I can teach people a little bit better. I didn’t even know I had photophobia (light sensitivity) before I came here, actually. I think I can teach people a little better about what I have and generally about visual impairments.”
A unique aspect of the program is that many of the resident assistants are visually impaired and some are former students of the camp.
“It’s really cool being here and then being able to reflect back on our program,” resident assistant Kirsten Boyle said. “Giving them firsthand advice of what it was like is really great. I think it really opened my eyes to all the different programs and technology that were available to us and ... we formed friendships and kept in touch. It helps teach you that there are other people out there that you can relate to.”
Tarik Williams, also a former Summer Academy student and current resident assistant, agreed.
“I definitely feel extremely lucky and blessed to be here,” Williams said. “It’s great to reflect on my past experiences and share them with the students. For me personally, I had a visual impairment later in my life, so when I came here it was still relatively new to me. Being in the program and seeing people with visual impairments and the RAs, it meant a lot to me. You have to believe in yourself no matter what.
Resident assistant Katherine Flick has gained an entirely new perspective on her work in training guide dogs since participating in the camp.
“I’ve definitely learned that being able to give these kids the gift of independence is the biggest tool we can possibly give them,” Flick said. We’re fostering potential college students who are going to be living on their own, out in the workforce as powerful members of society.”
Luis Fontanez Jr., the resident assistant director, sees the success students have after completing the program and wishes it had existed when he was in high school.
“I’ve had the fortune of working with the program for four years, and if there’s any one thing that I can say, it’s that I really wish that something like this would have come to fruition during the time when I was a youth.”
Fontanez, a Penn State graduate student who is totally blind, said such a program would have helped him transition into college life and the college experience would have been easier.
“Having all the tools and all the knowledge that this program provides ... would’ve benefited me immensely,” he said. “Instead, I’ve kind of had to go by the flow, so to speak, and just cobble everything together on my own.”
Student Sara Kowalewski, 15, knows that what she has learned will help her in the future.
“We draw lessons from everything,” Kowalewski said. “Just because you have a disability, does not mean you can’t. The phrase ‘you can’t’ does not fit for anybody, because you can.”
“Even though I’m only 15, I know all this stuff is going to stay with me because it’s clicked with me and it’s just a wonderful program. It helps change lives, and to be around everybody, all the students who are visually impaired, it shows that you’re not alone. Even when you feel like you are, you’re not.”
The lessons have helped Kowalewski learn not only about visual impairments but have also helped her to understand herself.
“I have more self-confidence and I have found more things out about me that I never knew I had in me,” Kowalewski said. “You have to push yourself out of that comfortable learning zone and into your panic zone to finally figure out and broaden your horizon. You have to learn something new to find what you like and what you don’t like because if you stay in that comfort zone the rest of your life, you’re never going to go anywhere, you’re never going to achieve anything.”