Educating Through Experience: The Spectrum Education Center Offers Exceptional Opportunities

December 22, 2016

In 2007, just a year after Dr. Kristine Turko became a faculty member at the University of Mount Union, she founded Outreach for Autism, a program that offered students the opportunity to live and work at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism for 10 weeks over the summer. Sixty-six students have participated in the program since its inception, and more than three-quarters of them have pursued graduate degrees or careers in autism intervention.   

Outreach for Autism paved the way for the launch of the Spectrum Education Center at Mount Union in May of 2016. Although the name has changed, the mission remains the same – to provide training and education for those interested in autism intervention and advocacy. The Spectrum Education Center now encompasses student training, community outreach, and professional development. 

“The center was developed, in part, to get students who are interested in autism intervention and advocacy experience working in the field before they choose a career path,” Turko explained. 

Students who participate in Spectrum’s Internship Program work at a clinical site 24 hours per week while completing courses specifically designed for the program. The courses focus on the fundamentals of working with individuals with developmental disabilities. Students investigate professional research on best practice in disability services and compare the theory to what they experience in their daily work. 

Turko has built relationships with several local institutions, including the Cleveland Clinic, Golden Key Center for Exceptional Children, The Arc of Ohio, GentleBrook, The Workshops, Inc. (TWi), and more. 

“This semester, we have three students enrolled in the Spectrum Program Internship, and with each working at a different clinical site, they offer unique perspectives to complex discussions in the classroom. They are able to make real contributions to the places in which they work and help these organizations and others function in the most effective ways possible,” Turko said.

Exceptional Experience

Marisa Rinaldi ’17, a psychology major from Tallmadge, Ohio, divides her internship work between The Arc of Ohio and TWi. Both facilities provide advocacy and support for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These programs work to maximize the independence of these individuals through employment and vocational training. 

“I became interested in this program after I took Dr. Turko’s Introduction to Autism class last year,” she said. “It sounded like a great opportunity and an amazing experience.”

Although Rinaldi started her internship focused on a career as a child life specialist, her experience has opened doors to opportunities she may never have considered otherwise. Spectrum interns become keenly aware of the importance of their work and the diversity in the job while learning what they can expect as professionals in the field. 

“I am so incredibly happy to have been able to participate in these internships,” she said. “Even though I have only been working with individuals with disabilities for a few months, I have realized that this may be another career path to pursue.”

The Spectrum Program Internship provides students with unique perspectives that university courses alone cannot. These intensive, hands-on experiences allow students to see all that a career in the field of disability services offers, from the miraculous to the mundane and everything in between. 

“Most students complete the program and know they want to work in the field of disability services, and a small percent realize it’s not for them. Both outcomes are equally important to students’ development in the field and their future goals,” Turko said.

Chad Gentry ’17, a neuroscience major from Louisville, Ohio, began the Spectrum Program Internship thinking he wanted to focus on a career in sleep studies. But after completing a summer internship at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism and working at GentleBrook in Hartville, Ohio, in the 2016 Fall Semester, his goals began to shift.  

“My interest was in sleep research until I worked at the Cleveland Clinic and was introduced to autism studies. With the influence from internships, my career interests have shifted to working in the developmental disability field,” he said. 

Gentry assists the clients at GentleBrook with daily activities and assorted craftsman projects, which can be anything from staining furniture to needlework. He also helps with research initiatives conducted with the individuals working at GentleBrook. These studies will help him and other employees better understand how to help those with developmental disabilities choose meaningful and appropriate career paths. 

“GentleBrook focuses on giving all individuals with developmental disabilities a chance to work in the way they want and deserve to work, just like anyone else,” he said.  

Emily Wolfe ’16, a psychology major also from Louisville, Ohio, who graduates in December 2016, works with pre-school students at the Golden Key Center for Exceptional Children, an autism charter school in Canton, Ohio. The classroom in which Wolfe works has children with and without autism diagnoses working together. The classroom structure provides opportunities for intervention with the children with autism and allows them to work on fine motor skills, listening skills, and social development. Wolfe often assists in the motor skills center of the intervention classroom, allowing her one-on-one time with many of the children. She hopes to become a marriage and family therapist, so interacting with both children and their parents has been an invaluable experience. 

“Getting to see family dynamics in action has helped me learn that these families are like anyone else’s, but they sometimes need a little more patience and support than others,” Wolfe explained. “Being a senior gives me great flexibility with my schedule, so I am able to go out into the community and help others while earning credit. It’s so rewarding. Every time I see a child, even if it has only been a few minutes since I last saw them, they light up and run toward me for a big bear hug.”

A Community-Focused Future

Students at Mount Union currently participate in several of Spectrum’s outreach initiatives on campus, including peer mentoring for individuals with developmental disabilities, a service that is desperately needed in the community. Turko plans to expand the peer-mentoring program in the spring of 2017. 

“We have two undergraduates currently piloting the peer-mentoring program, both of whom are former Spectrum interns. They work with middle and high school students to help them develop academic and social skills,” Turko explained.

In addition to the Spectrum Program Internship and peer-mentoring program, Turko offers a series of lunchtime lectures that are open to the community. Presentation topics include advocacy, culture, current issues, and research on developmental disabilities. The lectures have been a great success, and they will continue to be held every third Wednesday, January through April, in 2017.

“These lectures help support regional professional development for educators and clinicians, the people on the front lines of helping individuals with disabilities and their families,” Turko said. 

Shaping Tomorrow’s Leaders

Although the three current interns in the Spectrum Education Center are all from Mount Union, Turko’s goal is for students from peer institutions to participate in the program as well. Students in the internship program will live on campus and work in the greater Alliance area. Each semester, the cohort members will learn from one another’s experiences while allowing them access to all the faculty, staff, and resources that Mount offers. 

For current interns, their work has not only been about gaining insight into potential career paths and helping the community, but also about what the individuals with whom they work have taught them. Through the program, Rinaldi has been a part of major development projects, including the creation of curricula and the design of new physical spaces in which individuals with disabilities will work and learn at TWi.

“The most rewarding part of my job at both The Arc and TWi is knowing that I am making a difference in people’s lives,” she explained. “Working at The Arc, I have had the opportunity to really help out families that need guidance, and at TWi, I am able to give individuals with disabilities a chance to integrate into the community and actually have a say in what they want their lives to be.”

Gentry feels similarly about the time he has spent teaching and mentoring individuals at GentleBrook. 

“The best part of this internship is putting smiles on the clients’ faces,” he explained. “There is nothing more rewarding than a client coming to you for advice and seeing them change their own lives.”

Wolfe hopes to start impacting the community after graduating this winter, and the experiences she has had as a Spectrum intern have only emboldened her mission and drive to accomplish her goals. 

“I think that, most of all, this work has made me even more passionate about helping others,” Wolfe said. “Every day is an irreplaceable memory.”

The Spectrum Education Center has offered students and members of the community incredible opportunities, and with its continued success, its benefits will grow. As the program continues to expand, attract more students, and broaden its reach within the region, new groups of students will be able to change the lives of people in their communities. The Spectrum Education Center truly helps prepare students for fulfilling lives, meaningful work, and responsible citizenship.

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