Exterior shot of Ketchum Hall, home of the Exceptional Education Department

Community-Service Students Make Impact Despite COVID-19


Heading into the fall semester, Kathleen Palumbo, practicum lecturer in the Exceptional Education Department, was worried about how her students in EXE 245—Community Service with Individuals with Special Needs—would earn their community service credits. After all, the class is based largely on volunteering with a human service agency in the community. The problem, because of the coronavirus pandemic, was that a lot of human service agencies in the area were turning away volunteers. The State University of New York, likewise, discouraged in-person service learning for the fall semester to minimize the spread of illness.

“The agencies were struggling just to keep their own staff working,” Palumbo said. “For us in this course, it was as if you were teaching a class and were told you can’t use the textbook. We had some major challenges.”

Despite agencies not accepting student volunteers, the students still needed to meet the requirements of the class. Palumbo decided to modify the requirements and let students work with family members, friends, or neighbors with disabilities. With so many people with disabilities unable to attend school or their regular programs, there was a real need to provide support in the community. The results, Palumbo said, were “wonderful.”

Evan O'Connell sitting at a laptop in the College Based Transition Program classroom in Bacon Hall

Evan O'Connell, a student in Buffalo State's College Based Transition Program, working in the CBTP classroom in Bacon Hall.

“I was just amazed at how much fidelity the students kept in place to meet the goals and objectives of the course,” she said. “The students really tried to keep the true intent of the course, and commit to a certain number of hours in working with people with disabilities, and they did it.”

The idea was to make sure the students were doing intentional, worthwhile activities with whomever they were working with. Every activity, even taking a walk, for instance, should be turned into a learning experience, Palumbo said.

“My one directive to the students was to make sure whatever activity they were engaged in was purposeful,” she said.

Some students worked with the College Based Transition Program (CBTP) at Buffalo State College. The CBTP—a partnership between the Buffalo Public Schools, People Inc., and Buffalo State—is a non-credit-bearing program that allows developmentally disabled students who are aging out of high school to continue their education in a college setting. EXE 245 students created lesson plans and activities for the students in the program, and were able to create relationships with them virtually, said Renee Ratliff, life coach and volunteer coordinator of the CBTP.

“They did amazing,” she said, referring to the EXE 245 students. “Some of the lessons and PowerPoints they put together were really great.”

Evan O’Connell, a student in the CBTP, said he enjoyed the interactions he had with the EXE 245 students, even if they were virtual.

“On one hand, I liked meeting over Zoom and Hangouts because it taught me how to use the various communication services, which is great for someone like me,” he said. “On the other hand, I want to meet the volunteers I have been seeing over Zoom in person because I do want them to be able to experience what I am like in person, what the bookstore is like, in addition to the Union, experience Bengal Pause, and talk about the things we are both interested in as well as what we are currently doing in our classes.”

“My one directive to the students was to make sure whatever activity they were engaged in was purposeful.”

- Kathleen Palumbo, Practicum Lecturer, Exceptional Education Department

EXE 245 student Aye San, a junior majoring in speech-language pathology, worked with a student with developmental disabilities at his home, following COIVD-19 protocols. The interactions were a bit awkward at first, she said, but the relationship grew and was mutually beneficial.

“Since it was my first time working with a student, my challenge was being nervous about how and what I should do to impact a student significantly,” she said. “So I had to prepare both mentally and physically to meet the student’s needs.”

San said she did her best to keep the student engaged and happy during her time with him, and it was a gratifying experience.

“I never thought I would have this opportunity to teach a student when I am a student myself, and it made me realize how thankful I am to all the teachers who are trying to make students successful,” she said. “I have learned that making changes in a person's life is so rewarding.”

Elaina Conklin, another EXE 245 student and a junior majoring in speech-language pathology, fulfilled her requirements by working with a younger sister, Anna, who’s autistic. It was difficult in the beginning because of the lack of a professional setting, she said.

“I was nervous at first because I didn’t want to feel like I wasn’t doing enough for her, and if I am being honest, it was hard sometimes to even find the motivation to do so,” Conklin said.

However, the difficulty of the situation soon faded, and she found new ways to connect with her sister through the work.

“The littlest tasks can make more of a difference than many would like to think,” she said. “I started to connect with Anna in ways I hadn’t before, even though I have lived with her for so long. This not only will help Anna in the future but it helps my family and I better understand Anna and how we can improve going about things with her.”

Palumbo said that the work her students did this semester is a reflection on the types of students at Buffalo State.

“I think it was remarkable and exceptional, given all of the constraints of the pandemic,” she said. “The students here really want to help others, and to get as much as they can out of their education at Buffalo State and as much as they can out of a course like EXE 245.”

Photo by Bruce Fox, campus photographer.