Recognizing that adults with special needs or intellectual disabilities often wish to pursue post-secondary education, Lifestyles for the Disabled has partnered with three Staten Island colleges and universities to provide mutually beneficial learning experiences.
Scott Salinardi, associate executive director at the Staten Island-based non-profit agency that offers programs and services for adults with developmental disabilities,
explained that Wagner College, St. John’s University, and Empire State College are serving as partners in furthering the education of Lifestyles Learners.
From auditing classes on local campuses to working with college students who visit the non-profit’s facilities as part of “experiential learning” initiatives, a range of opportunities for higher education exists for Lifestyles participants.
“A lot of the colleges and universities are challenging their students to get out in the community. They get a bit of ‘real life’ experience. For us, there’s the chance to get our participants on a college campus, and many are very interested because they have siblings who attend college or are of the age but they never thought it was possible for them before,” Salinardi said.
Salinardi explained that while Lifestyles participants aren’t granted full admission, they’re able to sit in — tuition-free — on a class or two depending on the professors and subject matter. Salinardi credits his colleagues Louise Vallario, who heads up the Wagner and Empire State programs, and Paula Gregory, who coordinates the St. John’s experience, as being responsible for facilitating these services at Lifestyles. He said he’s also extremely grateful for the willingness of the faculty and staff at each school to work with Lifestyles to offer these unique learning opportunities.
“Our goal is to try to break through that barrier,” he said. “Wagner was the first college that came to the table with us about ten years ago to look at how we can offer a curriculum or just the ability to be on campus. Though it won’t lead to a diploma, our learners gain the experience of auditing a class, building relationships with college students and they get the flavor of being there. It’s just as much about the experience as it is the end product. It’s about maturation, exposure to that dynamic, and making those connections.”
One of the first collaborative ventures between Lifestyles and Wagner involved creating a mural.
“It was very much ‘You come to our campus and we’ll come to your campus,’ ’’ Salinardi recalled. “Art students at Wagner College were paired up with a Lifestyles Learner. They worked together in the classroom on the art project, depicting Lifestyles program activities on a felt mural. We had the opportunity to walk on the quads, seeing who’s throwing a frisbee, who’s in the student union. Then, for the last class, we welcomed Wagner students onto our campus where they came to hang the mural and partake in a barbecue. Friendships were formed and memories were made.”
Salinardi said that opportunity has led to more chances at Wagner for us to audit classes, following the same curriculum and syllabus as the other students.
“Our program participants have really dedicated themselves to learning,” he said. “Our in-house college professor Louise taught them the materials as well, so they were very prepared for discussion. They blew the professor away because they took it seriously but still had fun with it. It really showed them the learning capabilities of our Lifestyles Learners and what it meant to them. It fueled the relationship from an early stage and we really appreciate that because we’re asking colleges to do something that’s outside their typical comfort zone.
This past semester, Wagner Professor Kevin Bott, was instrumental in inviting Lifestyles to join in his performing arts/democracy class, something our participants are still raving about to this day,” Salinardi said.
For more than eight years, St. John’s University has provided Lifestyles participants red carpet access to its Staten Island campus, with special support by students from its Education Department and Ozanam Scholars Program. Under the leadership of Associate Dean and Professor Regina Mistretta, Lifestyles participants are learning subject matter in state of the art facilities and being included in campus life as well. This semester, Professor Carol Trasborg has opened her Early Childhood Development class to eight Lifestyles Learners, all who are interested in acquiring skills to help them pursue a career in working with children in a school setting.
“St. John’s stands out as a fantastic community partner and every year the relationship grows, allowing more Lifestyles Learners access to college life,” praised Salinardi.
Last but not least, Empire State College has made a tremendous impact with Lifestyles in its two-year relationship. Professor Mary Zanfini, who teaches Educational Studies at Empire State College, has championed the integration of Lifestyles Learners into her classroom, most recently teaching a class focused on the life of Edgar Allan Poe, which included a field trip to the author and poet’s Bronx home. Over the last three semesters, Zanfini has included Lifestyles Learners in several other classes and has been instrumental in broadening the opportunities at Empire State College for the agency. Zanfini’s colleague, Professor Michael Nastacio, welcomed Lifestyles participants into his finance class last semester, teaching important money management and budgeting skills. Empire State College is now planning on offering certificate classes to Lifestyles Learners in future semesters.
In addition to the classroom experience, Lifestyles Learners have had the chance to explore activities other college students enjoy. From attending a basketball game to working on a theatrical production, opportunities for learning and socialization abound, Salinardi said.
“Students worked on a joint play with Wagner that culminated in a performance at our campus,” he said. “They talked about the marginalization of different people in the U.S. over time. It turned into a musical performance that tied in so many things. It was fun to see it develop and it was a great experience.”
The ability to visit college campuses also helps Lifestyles Learners consider new opportunities in regard to their futures. As they see others working on campus whether it be in food service, maintenance, or grounds keeping, it expands their horizons, Salinardi noted.
“We’re lucky to have these professors and students get on board with this. For our individuals, it builds their confidence. It shows them there are other things they can be doing. It opens up their eyes to other experiences,” he said.
Salinardi added that many new families of recent high school graduates have come to Lifestyles requesting that more services such as these become available. While Salinardi hopes to continue building on this solid foundation by adding more schools and programs, “to pull it off logistically takes time but the sky is the limit,” he said.
The opportunity to pursue college programs is offered through the day program as part of Lifestyles Day Habilitation Without Walls program. Salinardi noted that it also can extend into respite services because college courses often meet outside of the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. day program parameters.
“We don’t want our learners to ever be pigeonholed,” he said. “We try to keep it flexible because we don’t want anyone to get shut out of an opportunity.”