IUP-Punxsy seeks to broaden focus toward important demographic: Local students

PUNXSUTAWNEY — As it approaches its 50th year of its presence in southern Jefferson County, Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s campus in Punxsutawney is broadening its approach to a special group of students: Those in the Punxsutawney Area School District and surrounding districts.

During this time of recruitment for all institutions of higher education — as high school juniors and seniors begin planning for their next steps in their educational careers — IUP-Punxsutawney seeks to further reach out to students closer to home, and to show that its first-year curriculum, support services and living/learning community is “beneficial to any and all students beginning the undergraduate experience,” said Terry Appolonia, dean of IUP-Punxsy.

“We want to refocus on our original student population, which we seem to have gotten away from, and demonstrate the economic and educational convenience of having a college in Jefferson County,” he said.

Currently, there are about 30 freshmen at the West End campus and the IUP Academy of Culinary Arts, hailing from not only the Punxsy and Brookville districts, but also Clarion, Clearfield, Curwensville, DuBois, Harmony, Marion Center, Northern Cambria, Penns Manor and Purchase Line.

Three freshmen at IUP-Punxsy — Troy Berkey, a Brookville native living in Elk Run; Samantha Bennett of Clymer, a Penns Manor graduate; and Shawn States, a Punxsy native and graduate — learned about the campus in different ways but said they have found it has been a fine place to begin their educational careers.

At 29 years of age, Berkey is considered a non-traditional student and acknowledged that he knew there was a college in Punxsy’s West End, but little else about it.

“For six years, I drove past here thinking, ‘I wonder, I wonder, I wonder,’” he said.

His curiosity was certainly about the campus, but also, in his own mind, if he had missed the boat on attending college after high school.

“I did not feel prepared, and now that I’m here, I’m surprised how much I had held myself back,” said Berkey, who wants to major in earth/space science education.

Appolonia said for years, standardized tests such as the SAT and a student’s grade-point average were considered the prime indicators of a student’s success in college. But now, there are non-cognitive indicators — such as persistence in a student who has perhaps had to overcome some obstacles, at home or otherwise — of success.

He said the goal is to show these kinds of students that self-esteem isn’t built solely on grades, and “They need to apply these same survival principles to succeed.”

Bennett, who wants to become a special education teacher, said she planned to attend IUP’s main campus, but realized that she could find the same education and tuition in Punxsy. While it does mean a commute between Clymer and Punxsy, Bennett said that itself is a benefit to her, because it helps her focus on her studies without the distractions of on-campus life.

“I commute, so I have nothing to do but study; I have nothing to do but go to the library,” she said.

Both Bennett and Berkey are doing well enough during their semester for possible eligibility to take some courses at main campus in the spring, yet will complete the first-year experience at IUP-Punxsy.

For his part, States — who wants to major in accounting — said it was an easy transition to attend classes at IUP-Punxsy, because the transition is similar to what he knew just a year ago at PAHS: His college classes are also in one building, and there are fewer students in Punxsy than at IUP’s main campus.

Appolonia said the living/learning concept allows students to learn during each moment of the university experience — in the classroom and in living spaces, where they further learn more about themselves as they travel the next road of education.

All three students said once coming to IUP-Punxsy, they found that some alleged horror stories about the college experience weren’t necessarily true: Yes, one must buckle down and prepare to work, but no, the student is not alone — such as the case at IUP-Punxsy, as they cited the availability of their teachers, via one-on-one meetings, group study sessions and personal tutoring, if needed.

“They know the freshman experience,” Bennett said, while Berkey added, “I have not yet met a professor that I haven’t liked.”

“The fact is, IUP (main) would love to do what we do with 3,100 students,” Appolonia said. “But we can dedicate those resources here. We select the professors who want to be here, who want to work with these students.”

Appolonia also said IUP-Punxsy seeks to broaden a program that has proven to be a fine catalyst to a successful first-year experience, the summer program that offers pre-freshmen a chance to take university-level courses and an immersion in the arts, as well as guaranteed housing at the Living Center for the rest of the IUP-Punxsy study.

Also, it shows pre-freshmen the early steps of examining themselves and their goals before officially entering college.

“Everybody here or there can succeed; it is just a matter issues of readiness and preparation,” Appolonia said.

Berkey said even when there’s a doubt in his mind as he approaches a new challenge on the new road ahead of him, he knows there are people available to help.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do if you’re going to get somewhere,” he said. “I’ve been out (of high school) 10 years now, and I just jumped right back in.”

“Nobody should leave this experience without a successful start in education,” Appolonia said. “We have 234 first-year students; that’s enough for us to get our arms around everybody and give them a good start.”