Published April 12, 2019
If the true mark of a premier university is the quality of its graduates, UB can stand tall. UB can boast of a new generation of leaders, students poised to influence their surroundings and professions, ranging from science and technology, to social sciences, the arts and grassroots community activism.
“Often we think of leaders in a very narrow way, a political leader. However, leadership comes in all shapes and sizes,” says Elizabeth Colucci, director of UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships.
“Here at UB, we have students leading in such a variety of ways — in the lab, the community, on and off campus. The leadership I talk about with students I categorize as ‘Big L Leadership.’ That’s where an individual sees a need in society or an organization or institution, and they say, ‘Things could be better. Let me do something.’
“That’s the type of leader that UB students are today.”
To recognize this new class of leaders, UBNow will feature occasional in-depth stories on the university’s students. First, meet Mariangela Perrella, who has found an artful, grounded way to engage her two passions: dancing and helping children with special needs.
Already, she is an example of someone developing her talents without having to conform to rigid structure. She’s defining her own identity in education, and the energy and joy she experiences while doing so is personal affirmation.
When one of Perrella’s faculty mentors wrote her a recommendation for the Fulbright Scholarship, she called Perrella a “thinking dancer and a dancing thinker.”
That’s a perfect way to understand Perrella. She combines a passion for integrating dance and movement with innovative classroom techniques that help teach children with special needs.
Perrella has danced since she was 5 — tap, ballet, jazz, and then she was a dance major and teacher’s assistant at UB. Now, she teaches tap at Lancaster Dance Center.
“It’s so cliché, but dance is a way I can express myself I can’t do any other way,” she says. “Dance is really part of my identity. It has a big impact on how I understand the world.”
This is only part of Perrella’s story. She also is profoundly moved when working closely with children with learning disabilities. For the past two summers, Perrella worked in a treatment program at The Summit Center in Amherst for children with high-functioning autism. Children are dropped off early in the morning and stay until early evening five days a week. It felt as if they were living there, she says.
“At the end of it, seeing the improvement from day one to the last day of the program was just so satisfying for me,” she says. “And getting to know the parents and the kids, seeing how much a difference can be made, that just really motivated me.”
Perrella, 22, who graduated last May with a dual degree in dance and psychology and was an Honors College Presidential Scholar, is a shining example of those who want to merge their interests and integrate their passions into an original and creative whole, according to UB administrators and professors who know her.
Imagine excelling in two diverse disciplines. Then crafting them with scholarly knowledge and unmistakably humanity into one collaborative, innovative pursuit greater than the sum of both parts.
These principles steer Perrella’s young but exemplary life. It’s the guiding force behind her Fulbright grant application and a synergy she called “the most purposeful choice I have made in my life so far.”
Perrella described it best in her personal statement for the Fulbright Scholarship: “Dance and psychology?” she wrote, recalling the usual reaction when others heard her dual interests. “That’s an … interesting … combination. What do you want to do with that?”
Perrella had a good explanation.
“I found myself intellectually divided between those two fields, and I struggled to combine them in a way that made sense to me,” she wrote. “Psychology provided the disciplines of science and research I desired academically, whereas dance provided an emotional and physical outlet.
“I discovered how two seemingly disparate and conflicting interests could inform each other and provide for an extremely well-rounded education and fulfilled sense of self.”
For children with ADHD and autism, many of their issues are “movement-based,” according to Perrella.
“If you talk to teachers and parents, they are always moving around, fidgeting, and you can’t get them to stop,” she says. “I feel you can use dance or any movement-based practice in a classroom environment to help with those behaviors.”
Another faculty sponsor, Gregory Fabiano, described Perrella as “a delight, with a calm demeanor, interpersonal ease and top-notch social skills.”
“She is one of those few undergraduate students who comes by every five to 10 years, who is clearly on a steep, upward trajectory,” says Fabiano, associate dean for interdisciplinary research in the Graduate School of Education and Perrella’s honors adviser.
“And our job is to help them facilitate their growth so we can then step back and admire their creativity and production.”
Anne H. Burnidge, director of graduate studies for the Department of Theatre and Dance, was the faculty mentor who described Perrella as a “thinking dancer and a dancing thinker.”
“There are always students who rise to the top in terms of scholarly and career potential,” Burnidge wrote. “Ms. Perrella is one of the unique individuals who is not only a top student, but who also brings integrity, patience, kindness and insight into everything she does.”
Perrella’s most recent and notable work is at Fabiano’s Center for Children and Families. She did her honors thesis on the effects of “adaptive furniture” on elementary students with a range of disabilities. Researchers and teachers were hoping this special classroom furniture — equipment that encourages movement, such as yoga balls, wobble stools, zigzag chairs — would help students reduce such disruptive behavior as yelling out, talking, fidgeting and leaving their seats.
Perrella and the teachers started with one classroom having all the adaptive furniture and another classroom having none. For two weeks, Perrella and her fellow researchers counted the times the students would act out in each classroom. After two weeks, researchers switched the furniture. The students who had the special furniture went back to normal desks and chairs, and the second classroom got the kind that encourages movement.
“About a month and a half later, we went to talk to the teachers, and they were extremely frustrated,” Perrella says. “They hated everything. They said it’s not working. Our kids are behaving worse than before. What do we do?
“So we tried to problem-solve with the teachers because they are the ones with the students all day.”
The teachers and researchers decided to let the teachers choose which students used adaptive furniture.
“We collected data, and what we found at the end was when teachers picked specific kids on a day-to-day basis who they think could use this furniture best, disruptive behavior violations across the entire classroom decreased. Everyone behaved better, even if only two or three students were using the furniture. The whole class improved.”
If awarded the Fulbright, Perrella’s project will integrate arts and psychology to another level. She hopes to go to the University of Warwick, England, where she would engage in a partnership between the university’s Centre for Education Studies and the Warwick Arts Centre.
The project would explore how physical theater practices enhance learning for young children with learning disabilities. She would also study whether short music or dance breaks improve achievement for students with ADHD and autism.
Perrella’s ability to find innovative paths to her professional goals can be traced directly to her family.
Perrella’s father, Joseph Perrella, came from a family that owned a tannery in Gloversville. He is now a full-time artist. Her mother, Christine Perrella, stayed in education, working in special education and later as executive secretary for a school district’s assistant superintendent for instruction. She is also an accomplished knitter/sewer, developing an online business for her projects.
Perrella says the house in Niskayuna, near Schenectady, where she grew up, is like a museum, filled with pieces of artwork her father either created or collected from his mentors.
She has two older brothers. One is a technical artist for a video game company, the other an audio engineer in the music industry. The first understands the world through spatial relationships. The other tries to imagine how to best incorporate sounds.
“I watched my brothers go to college and pursue their passions in a university for these arts,” she says. “They exemplify what it means to incorporate science and arts. And the only reason they were able to do that was because my parents encouraged them. There are options for you.”
Her family’s ability to create their own paths in education motivates Perrella to help others find those same options.
“A lot of that information isn’t provided to kids, and they don’t necessarily know they have lesser-known career options. But that’s where they fit,” she says. “It’s so perfect. I’m all about ‘How can I make sure people see the whole breadth of options?’”
Accompanying this is her exuberant appreciation of Buffalo.
“I love it here, and I would like to stay here eventually,” she says. “Everyone cares about each other and wants the other to succeed.
“You have a very large arts culture with people who support it and want to bring that into the city. The resurgence of the city is amazing, even in the four or five years I’ve been here. And I just think it’s so exciting; all the young people who are here seem to be engaged with each other.
“I’ve never really been anywhere like it.”