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An independent life: how one York student is helping those with intellectual disabilities gain new skills

Nicole on campus

The handful of coins that Nicole Wasserleben ’21 pushes across the table may seem insignificant in value. The York College of Pennsylvania student knows that it’s not the amount of money that matters—it’s being able to recognize the nickels from the dimes.

That simple lesson is the one she’s reviewing with students in their late teens and early twenties at Behavior By Design, an applied behavior analysis agency that works with individuals on the autism spectrum. “There are a lot of things we take for granted in life,” Wasserleben says. “Something as simple as recognizing money and knowing how to use it properly is one step closer to an independent life for someone with an intellectual disability.”

Wasserleben didn’t always know she wanted to study Psychology. When she first applied to York College, she came as an undeclared student. What drew her to the campus was her desire to be on the cross country and track team. She knew there were a variety of good programs at York College, and she trusted she would find the right one.

An introduction to your future

After taking Psychology 101, Wasserleben considered minoring in Psychology. When she later enrolled in Social Psychology to dive deeper into the subject, she realized this was where she wanted to be. “I knew I’d have a lot of opportunities when it came to a career,” Wasserleben says. “This is where I could have an impact.”

This past fall, she decided to take advantage of the Early Entrance Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis program, which will accelerate Wasserleben’s education. With just one extra year of classes, she will receive her master’s degree in 2022.

After working in her high school’s Life Skills classes, coupled with her York College experience, Wasserleben decided she wanted to work with children on the autism spectrum or with other developmental disabilities. “It just made sense for me to take the extra steps to equip myself with the proper education,” she says. “I know I’m on a good path with this.”

Lifting others up

Wasserleben looks forward to going into work every day. Since she started working at Behavior By Design in January, she’s seen students develop math, science, and reading skills that will help them lead more independent lives.

She finds the same rewarding experience here as she did working with fellow high school Life Skills students in gym and cooking classes. Now, she says, she doesn’t get to just do the work because she wants to help people. She gets to create a career that changes lives.

“When I see a student having a good day or learning new skills they didn’t get the hang of before,” she says, “knowing I was part of that learning is an amazing feeling.”

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