Colleen Tomko smiled as she remembered the look on her son’s face last April when he prepared to make his directorial debut with Lehigh’s department of theatre.
“When Shaun gets excited about something,” she said, “his whole body expresses it. He has a skip in his step, a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face. It was easy for anyone to see how excited he was. He was standing taller, moving faster. And he was so proud.”
Leading roles haven’t come along often for Shaun, whose one-act play won rave reviews from friends and family. Shaun is a student in the College of Education’s Transition and Assessment program, which seeks to improve the quality of life for people with developmental disabilities.
The 10-year-old program offers socialization activities, learning experiences and job training for young adults with disabilities. Shaun and his peers work one-on-one with graduate students from the College of Education.
The Transition and Assessment program, which is funded by local school districts and counties, helps young adults adapt to new social settings when they leave school. This is the first time that Transition and Assessment has supported a student in college classes, says Amanda Helman, transition coordinator for the program.
Learning to be a self advocate
“We work hard encouraging our students to be self advocates,” says Helman. “What Shaun has done is really special and hopefully has opened the doors for his peers.”
Shaun’s interest in animation and puppetry began at the age of three, when he learned to recognize cartoon episodes from the names of writers and directors in the opening credits.
His passion for the entertainment industry culminated in his participation in Pam Pepper’s directing class—which is demanding even for undergraduates aspiring to careers in the performing arts.
“I knew I was working with a self-described ‘Authority on the Muppets,’” says Pepper, department chair and professor of theatre. “Shaun is so imaginative. I encouraged him to choose a play he connected with personally.”
Tomko, who communicates through the use of a Dynavox speech device, wrote a script, held auditions, cast his classmates in roles, and led rehearsals for what became “Shaun’s Looney Play.” The short, four-minute act focused on an act of thievery by Bugs Bunny (Abhijeet Joglekar ’12), and the lessons of friendship and forgiveness by a cast of characters that included Porky Pig (Adam Pittenger ‘11), Daffy Duck (Sarathi Sakthivel ‘12), Kermit the Frog (Marc Rein ‘11), and Tweety Bird (Hilary Kissinger ‘09).
“It was a beautiful moment to behold. Five classmates worked together as peers to create a performance everyone could be proud of,” says Pepper. “Shaun taught us about our own prejudices and the opportunities we all have to view things differently.”
Shaun’s interest in college began a few years ago, when he attended a conference for students with disabilities who are making the transition from school to adult life. He told his parents then that he wanted to go to Lehigh.
“Just the idea of saying he is going to Lehigh causes people to presume greater competence, which he in turn lives up to,” says Colleen Tomko. “I really believe he is getting many of the same benefits that other students attending Lehigh gain. You don’t need to be a ‘traditional’ student to realize the many real, practical and functional lessons that can be learned from a campus like Lehigh.”