Gloria Clark, a sophomore legal studies and conflict resolution major, works on Spanish with her tutor Amy Hernandez at the Learning Center. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

An Academic Assist

Since 1983, Brenau University’s Learning Center has helped students with learning disabilities and other disorders achieve success in and out of the classroom. Under the direction, most of that time, of Brenau’s longest-serving faculty member Dr. Vincent Yamilkoski, the center typifies the open and accessible, one-on-one, superior education for which Brenau is known.

At the heart of the historic campus sits a modest, two-story building that houses an operation playing a crucial role in the academic success of many Brenau students. It is the home of the Learning Center, one of the first of its kind on a Georgia college campus.

For 35 years, the Learning Center has accommodated the needs of students with learning disabilities and helped them develop skills to both cope and succeed in the classroom. These specialized services have aided hundreds of alumni who otherwise might not have earned their diplomas.

“Every student who comes here is college-capable, but some have a problem processing certain things,” says Dr. Vincent Yamilkoski, director of the Learning Center. “Without the Learning Center and other support services, these students would be on their own.”

Yamilkoski – a 37-year College of Education vet who is the university’s longest-serving  faculty member – became the director of the Learning Center in 1987, about four years after the program was established by special education professor Karen Pfunder.

From its outset, Yamilkoski says, Brenau’s program took a much more structured approach than similar programs in other universities. Whereas other student support services rely upon student helpers or “walk-in” schedules, the Learning Center uses professional tutors who meet with students twice a week.

“That is a huge difference from peer tutors,” said Crystal Ball, office manager of the Learning Center. “We have people who are degreed professionals tutoring in subjects in which they hold degrees and often have professional experience. There is no better help we could give these students.”

Student and tutor sit at table with a laptop with pencil and paper.
Robert Schwarer works on math with his tutor Dwight Jones in the Learning Center. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Connecting the dots

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, only 41 percent of students with learning disabilities across the nation graduate from a postsecondary institution. And of that, just 17 percent receive any kind of learning disabilities support in college.

Freshman Robert Schwarer from Alpharetta, Georgia, has used the Learning Center’s services since his first day at Brenau. Schwarer has attention deficit disorder and comes in every Tuesday and Thursday for tutoring.

“I have an A in Spanish, and I’ve made over 90 on every single test. That’s partially me, and that’s partially the push I get here.”

A theater major, Schwarer first heard about the Learning Center in high school. He was part of two performances at Brenau, one in Pearce Auditorium and another at the Brenau Downtown Center Theatre on the Square. Brenau was thus the first college campus he visited. “I heard about the Learning Center, and I immediately wanted to join the school,” he says. “I thought, small campus means small classes, and it has a great theater company. But the learning center was really the huge bonus.”

Sophomore Gloria Clark, a conflict resolution and legal studies major from Decatur, Georgia, who has dyslexia, receives tutoring Tuesdays and Thursdays at the center. In addition to her studies, Clark runs track and is a spirit cheerleader, all of which keep her on a busy schedule. “I leave my dorm at 7:30 a.m. and I don’t get back until 10 at night,” says Clark, who – as she is featured in the 2016-17 Brenau student recruitment video – always seems to be running, running, running from place to place.

The solution is efficient time management. Because the Learning Center doesn’t do walk-ins, only scheduled tutoring appointments, students like Clark and Schwarer come in prepared with homework questions or essays that need proofreading.

Student looks at classroom materials and laptop.
Gloria Clark, a sophomore legal studies and conflict resolution major, works on Spanish with her tutor Amy Hernandez at the Learning Center. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Clark, who receives tutoring in literature/English composition and Spanish, says there are studies indicating people with dyslexia cannot learn another language. “But I’m proving them wrong,” she says. “I have an A in Spanish, and I’ve made over 90 on every single test. That’s partially me, and that’s partially the push I get here.”

Schwarer receives both tutoring and extended time on tests when needed. His handwriting is poor, he says, and it takes him a long time to analyze questions. At the Learning Center, he can take essay exams in twice the amount of time his classmates have, and he takes standard exams in time-and-a-half the norm. To prevent what is formally dubbed “enhanced contemporaneous research” – or looking up answers on Google – proctors collect electronic devices at the door. Students receive no major coursework exemptions.

“All of our students have accommodations, but they have to succeed and achieve all the outcomes of the university like everyone else,” Yamilkoski says. “They’re not given any special waivers for courses and they are expected to achieve the same degrees as everyone else.”

Schwarer describes the Learning Center as an “educational atmosphere.” He says it is easier for him to learn in that little old house on Washington Street than it is for him to learn in the classroom or on his own time. “We’re all so busy,” says Schwarer. “But having the Learning Center gives me that time to put my school work first.”

Meeting specific needs

Yamilkoski, who plans to retire this year (Be sure to attend the reunion weekend celebration in his honor April 8.), estimates that during the program’s early years a little more than 10 percent of all incoming freshmen signed up for Learning Center support. There has been an increase over the last decade in the number of students enrolling in support services. Ball said she’s seen an average of two new students each week seeking services this semester. Most had specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia and its mathematics and writing equivalents, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. Almost all displayed average or above-average intelligence, but they required extended testing time and, in some cases, test monitoring outside of regular classroom settings due to their processing difficulties.

“Brenau has been quick to say, ‘Let’s do something about this,’” Yamilkoski says. “The university spends a lot of time and effort to help students achieve academically. If we can match their persistence with a desire to help them learn, we are in great shape.”

Dr. Vince Yamilkoski carries the mace during the processional for The Women's College commencement on Friday, May 6, 2016, in Gainesville, Ga. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Dr. Vince Yamilkoski carries the mace during the processional for The Women’s College commencement on Friday, May 6, 2016, in Gainesville, Ga. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

The program serves more than just students with learning disabilities. International students represent another growing Learning Center segment. Many times, Yamilkoski says these students require additional help understanding the particulars of American customs and communication. Other students served by the program may have a physical disability hindering their success in the classroom. Ball said one such student had carpal tunnel syndrome in her dominant hand and needed surgery to correct it. “She couldn’t write,” Ball says. “So she’d come in here and tell me her answers, and I would write every word for her.”

Junior Megan Bullins, a pre-occupational therapy major from Flowery Branch, Georgia, also has particular needs being met by the Learning Center. In November 2012, Bullins was in a car accident that left her in a coma for two months with a traumatic brain injury, broken neck and pelvis and paralysis on her right side, including her right vocal chord.

When she started at Brenau in 2015, three years after the accident, Bullins did not initially want to use the Learning Center. “I didn’t want to use it, because I didn’t want to be considered disabled,” she says. “But I had to realize my traumatic brain injury is a learning disability just like the learning disabilities of other students here.”

Bullins processes things at a slower pace, she says, and her teachers can’t always take the time to make sure she’s keeping up with the class. Through tutoring at the center, she gets the individualized attention she needs. She also takes advantage of extended test time, like Schwarer.

It was the car accident, in a way, that led Bullins to Brenau. When her family relocated from North Carolina to Georgia  in 2014, Bullins’ mother encouraged her to try to go back to school. Bullins enlisted the help of physical and occupational therapists in order to regain strength in her body and left vocal chord to be ready for class. Her occupational therapy was so motivating, she says, that she realized it was the field she wanted to enter. Her occupational therapist Dr. Rebecca Rushton suggested Bullins apply to Brenau.

“I applied to three or four schools,” Bullins says. “Brenau was the one I got into, and I just knew it was meant to be.”

Yamilkoski says he has witnessed incredible courage from Brenau students over the years who overcame varied barriers to complete their degree programs. In his eyes, the graduates of the Learning Center are more than success stories. Indeed, he considers them his own personal heroes.

“When I started in special education, it was the end of an era of exclusion and the beginning of mainstreaming,” he says. “Our society has come a long way in providing civil rights for students with disabilities. Of that we can be proud.”

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