Vision Studies student AER award winners (L-R) Brittany Larkin, Laura Przybyla, and Patty D'Ascenzo.
Three vision studies students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education were honored with 2020 scholarship awards from the Association for Education Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER), the nation’s leading professional organization for educators in blindness and visual impairment.
Brittany Larkin received the 2020 Blasch Scholarship award from AER’s national organization, and Patty D’Ascenzo and Laura Przybyla received the AER Pennsylvania-Delaware chapter (Penn-Del AER) Scholarship award. According to the organization, these awards recognized the students' efforts “to deliver standards-based practices that lead to improved educational and rehabilitative outcomes for individuals with visual impairment and blindness.”
The Blasch Scholarship is a national award given to two outstanding orientation and mobility (O&M) students every other year. O&M is the art and science of teaching individuals who are visually impaired how to travel safely and independently. O&M specialists primarily teach individuals who are blind how to use a long cane and/or prepare them to travel with a dog guide.
“I have always joked and said that I did not choose this field, this field chose me!” said Larkin, who is earning master’s degrees in the areas of orientation and mobility and applied behavior analysis. She has taught at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children for the past two years and also worked at Overbrook School for the Blind.
“Ever since I was a young teen, I would spend several days a year visiting and volunteering at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children. My neighbor was one of the educational directors at the time, and I swear that ever since I first stepped foot into that building, my future career was set in stone!” said Larkin.
“Ms. Larkin is passionate about her work and always eager to learn more,” said Tessa McCarthy, an assistant professor in the school’s vision studies program. “The stories and information she shares in class stand out as particularly great examples of generalizing past experiences to the present. She is truly a natural teacher with the ability to be instructive and encouraging at the same time.”
Awards Demonstrate Strength in Vision Studies
The two students who received the Penn-Del AER Scholarship Award also felt a special calling as educators for the blind and visually impaired. Due to social distancing requirements because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony was held virtually this past April.
D’Ascenzo previously worked for 12 years in the banking industry before taking a break to become a stay-at-home mom. While volunteering at her sons’ school, she saw the significant impact of schooling on her children’s lives. That made her want a job in education when she returned to the workforce.
“I found a passion for accessibility because I want to ensure that students who are visually impaired have equal access to their curriculum and school materials,” said D’Ascenzo. “Not only does this population of students have the right to equal access, they need to have champions in their corner who will help them become all that they can be.”
This passion drove D’Ascenzo to pursue an education in Pitt Education’s globally recognized vision studies program. In addition to O&M certifications, the school offers certifications as Teachers of Students with Visual Impairment (TVI). Many students choose to earn both certifications.
“Even before she started in our program, Patty was already showing a commitment to inclusion and access for students with disabilities,” said Frances Mary D’Andrea, an assistant professor of practice. “She assisted Penn-Del AER with making their conference materials accessible before she was even a member! I can’t tell you how many students have told me that Patty has been a helpful resource to them, especially when it comes to access technology.”
Using Her Education To Help Others
Przybyla, the other Pitt Education student who received the Penn-Del AER Scholarship award, is also a mother who is motivated by a desire to help others.
“There is a shortage of professionals in the vision field,” said Przybyla. “Through my work and education experiences, I have seen firsthand the impact that our work has on the lives of the students, clients, and families that we serve. It is the ultimate honor to be recognized and celebrated for my hard work, dedication and passion by friends and colleagues whom I admire and respect.”
Przybyla is in the vision studies program to gain dual certification in O&M and TVI. In addition, she is using the school’s Project COMBS grant (Certified Orientation and Mobility/Behavior Specialist Behavior Specialist) to add an Applied Behavioral Analysis certificate to her academic plan. The grant will give her the opportunity to sit for the BCBA exam to become a board-certified behavior analyst.
“Laura can best be described as a life-long learner,” said D’Andrea. “She is a single mom raising two children, working full time as a teacher at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children. She also has served as a student volunteer at past Penn-Del AER conferences— all while she has been going to school for multiple degrees.”
Despite her busy schedule, Przybyla is able to complete her graduate studies.
“The support from my advisors has been amazing, and there is a flexibility to complete work and assignments around my schedule,” said Przyblya. “As a working single mom, being able to complete the program during ‘non-traditional’ hours has been a huge help.”
All three students are looking forward to continuing their outstanding work in and out of the classroom as the future leaders and educators of improving educational and rehabilitative outcomes for individuals with visual impairment and blindness.
Vision Studies Program at Pitt’s School of Education