Tyton Brunner (left) works with a student.

Tyton Brunner draws a crowd.

On the PennWest California campus, seeing Brunner often means seeing a student -- or two, or four -- engaged in conversation as they seek his company and guidance on a variety of subjects.

As academic achievement specialist for PennWest, student interaction is his job, but it is also his calling.

“When we took a strength-finder test, empathy was my number one strength,” Brunner said. “I focus on motivating students in need. I talk to students who need a lot of motivating, to keep them on track with what they need, to point them toward resources.”

For his efforts, Brunner has received the 2022 Paving the Way to Educational Success Advocate Award, given by the Pennsylvania Education for Children & Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program, managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

“Things have come full circle,” Brunner said. “I grew up in a foster care environment. I know how it feels to have support, and I want to support students who come to my office. Support plays such a key role in deciding if students want to stay or go, if they push through the hard times.”

California hosts a Fostering Youth program on campus but also provides staff support so that students who are unfamiliar with the college experience and also may have difficulties making connections have a contact.

At California, said Jill Loop, executive director of Student Outreach and Success at PennWest, that person is Brunner.

“Tyton brings an element of ‘real talk’ and ‘we’ll get through this together’ to every student he interacts with,” she said. “He is repeatedly able to capture the attention of foster youth, build their trust and help them identify the people and offices on campuses who can help them succeed.”

In addition to his work with students who have aged out of the foster care system, Brunner manages the Supplemental Instruction program at California. It’s offered through a five-year $2.1 million grant awarded in 2020from the U.S. Department of Education’s Title III Strengthening Institutions program.

It uses a group learning approach designed to enhance student success in “barrier courses” – classes with higher failure and withdrawal rates.

Brunner recruits, hires, and trains SI leaders – current students with a GPA of 3.0 or higher who already have passed these historically challenging courses with a B+ grade or better.

There are now 40 classes in the SI program, with more expected to be added for the spring semester. They are taught in person at California, or online for students at Edinboro or Clarion.

For Brunner, it’s the all about doing what comes naturally.

“Small things are big things when it comes to helping our students,” he said. “You don’t look for a reward.”