Senior LifeLink student Tanya Roberts can’t help but reach over to pat her mentor’s hand as a smile of endearment spreads across her face. She listens as Samantha Webb, her friend and mentor, raves about Roberts’ character and their extraordinary bond.
“The greatest thing I’ve learned from Tanya is to love unconditionally and really appreciate life for what it is,” Webb (senior-secondary education) said.
Roberts and Webb embody one of the many remarkable relationships created at LifeLinkPSU. LifeLink students, LifeLink staff and Penn State students make up one big family that excels in helping one another succeed.
LifeLinkPSU is a program that works in cooperation with the State College Area School district and the Penn State College of Education to give students with disabilities an opportunity to experience college life.
The program is run by Program Coordinator Marla Yukelson and a team of three paraprofessionals including long-time member Sandy Cecco, Beth Scott and newcomer Matthew Owens.
While students take anywhere from two to four classes each semester, they continue to work on their reading and math skills, work out at the gym regularly, attend life-skills classes created by LifeLink staff and work part-time jobs if they are capable, Yukelson said.
Penn State students volunteer as mentors and attend classes and activities alongside the LifeLink students. Some Penn State students start out at LifeLink simply fulfilling volunteer requirements for their majors, but by the end LifeLink becomes so much more.
“I often say that the Penn State students are the backbone of this program because without them we couldn’t do what we do,” Yukelson said.
The genuine excitement and commitment of Penn State students gives LifeLink students the true experience of a college friendship, Owens said.
“What starts out as an obligation for class, blossoms into an experience that many mentors will tell you is the highlight of their Penn State experience,” Yukelson said.
This semester the program has a record-number of 286 Penn State students volunteering.
“Penn State students get so much out of this experience that they just come back semester after semester,” Yukelson said.
This stands true for Webb, who has been at LifeLink for the past three years and all three years have been spent with Roberts. She said she loves walking into the classroom knowing that Roberts is always waiting there to share some words of wisdom.
“All these exams and homework and extra papers that I have and I come in and complain about … Tanya just looks at me and goes ‘Suck it up! You’re fine! Life is good!’” Webb said. “She is always there to tell me how good life is and how great it is to be together.”
Webb has found her passion in life and she’s found a way use it through LifeLink. She is a secondary education and social studies major so she thrives in classroom environments and forming student relationships like she’s formed with Roberts, Webb said.
Similarly to Webb and college students across America, LifeLink students too search for something they are passionate about in life.
“One of the things that has been really exciting for me to watch is how each individual student finds a passion or an interest that hopefully they can carry on for the rest of their lives,” LifeLink Paraprofessional Beth Scott said.
Roberts has found her niche this semester in her theater class.
“Tanya consistently demonstrates a willingness to throw any nerves, fears and discomforts out the window in order to pursue her desire to act,” Anastasia Peterson (graduate-theatre) said.
While academic success is important at LifeLink, some of the most astounding moments present themselves outside the classroom, Owens said.
For some students at LifeLink, it is a struggle to interact in an age-appropriate manner in social environments. When these students rise to the occasion in social situations, they prove to staff, mentors and themselves how much capability and strength they have to succeed, Owens said.
“It’s this mind blowing, like ‘where did that come from’ feeling and you just realize there’s so much untapped potential,” Owens said. “The students just sort of surprise you.”
Owens, Yukelson and Scott glanced around at each other bobbing their heads in agreement and curling the sides of their lips in three no-teeth smiles. The three staff members agreed that seeing LifeLink students reach their full potential is not just a part of their job description, it’s their passion.
At the end of a student’s journey at LifeLink, there is a graduation ceremony that recognizes all the accomplishments, big and small, in that student’s career.
“Every year graduation is really a special time,” Yukelson said. “Just watching students and their families rejoice in their accomplishments is really, really rewarding.”
Depending on the student and that student’s individual goals, after graduation LifeLink works with government agencies such as the Office of Vocation Rehabilitation to help place students in the appropriate jobs, Yukelson said.
But no matter where LifeLink students go in life, they are always a part of the LifeLink family.
“Sam is a really special person. She is like part of my family,” Roberts said.
Over the past three years and all the time spent with each other, Webb and Roberts are as close as sisters, Webb said.
“I love being here with my mentors and my friends, including the teachers, even Marla. I really love Marla, she’s like a mother to me,” Roberts said.
The closeness and love shared through LifeLink is what really makes the program successful and very special for all those involved.
“We really are a family,” Yukelson said.