Penn College alum’s perseverance pays off

Published 05.28.2019

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The student’s future revealed a stark reality: life without a college degree. His aborted attempts at college would close the door to a fulfilling information technology career. Potential wouldn’t be realized. Dreams wouldn’t be lived.

But Steven P. Fantaske flipped the reality he seemed destined to experience. Ten years after being placed on academic probation, he earned his second degree at Pennsylvania College of Technology. The result? Fantaske has a rewarding job that tasks him with altering reality. Only this time, the reality is virtual, and the beneficiaries are public safety personnel.

The former State College resident is an Unreal Engine 4 virtual reality developer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado. The NIST is a nonregulatory agency of the Department of Commerce that promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness.

Penn College alumnus Steven P. Fantaske, formerly of State College, works as an Unreal Engine 4 virtual reality developer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado. The NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness.Fantaske employs Unreal Engine 4 – a product suite of artistic creation tools for game developers – to craft virtual reality experiences with real-life consequences. Working for NIST’s Public Safety Communications Research Division, the 2018 graduate develops environments that first responders could face in order to test possible user interfaces, such as visual aids and audio cues.

“First responders are the whole reason why we do what we do,” Fantaske said. “We make a test bed so that firefighters, EMS and law enforcement can have better interaction with technology to help make them do better in their jobs.”

For example, Fantaske recently helped create a virtual scenario making it difficult for firefighters to locate and extract a victim from a building. Companies competed to devise a user interface to aid firefighters’ search and rescue efforts within that environment. The interface proven most effective may be incorporated by first responders in the field.

“We did actual firefighter training, so that we could make an environment that is more realistic,” said Fantaske, who donned about 50 pounds of gear for the daylong exercises. “And believe me, we all had our eyes opened on what they face in a burning building.”

Fantaske experienced the consequences of fire near the end of one of his semesters at Penn College. A blaze and the resulting smoke damage made his off-campus apartment unlivable and forced a move into college-provided emergency housing. That experience would leave some students distraught. For Fantaske, it was a minor setback during a 12-year odyssey full of major ones.

Growing up, Fantaske loved playing video games and “messing with computers.” By his sophomore year in high school, he targeted an information technology career. Penn College and its array of IT degrees was a natural choice to pursue that dream in 2006. He knew about the college through his brother, Nicholas, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and engineering technology.

“From the beginning, I wanted a major that was involved with making games. At the time, Penn College didn’t have one, so I went with what was closest, and that was web and application development,” Fantaske said.

Academic struggles during his first two semesters diminished his aspirations and prompted him to withdraw from the college for a year. His return and switch to a new IT major (technical support technology emphasis) didn’t improve his prospects.  The college placed Fantaske on academic suspension in December 2010.

“Not getting good grades and being dropped by Penn College was hard,” he said.

Even harder was his “dead end” dishwasher job in State College. That humbling experience fed his motivation to one day return to Penn College and alter his career trajectory.

“Doing a job I didn’t like and knowing I could do better and that I was smarter than I thought is how I overcame,” he said. “I wanted to go back but had to get my ducks in a row before I could achieve that.”

Part of his preparation involved submitting himself to a neuropsychology exam at the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation in Altoona. Since middle school, Fantaske knew he “had something” when it came to learning. He was right. OVR diagnosed him with executive dysfunction, making him eligible for assistance from Disability Services upon his return to Penn College.

“My brain doesn’t process the same amount of information that would be considered ‘normal.’ When I would take a full-time number of classes, I wouldn’t be able to pass all those classes. I would fail one or drop one to finish the semester,” Fantaske said.

“Executive functioning skills enable students to organize and act on information. Such skills include managing time, paying attention, planning and organizing, multitasking and recalling information,” explained Kathy W. Zakarian, director of counseling at Penn College. “When a student experiences executive functioning deficits, it takes extra time and effort to improve work habits and utilize organizational and time management skills.”

Armed with such knowledge, Fantaske had a new plan when he returned to the college in the fall of 2013: accept accommodations from Disability Services and limit the number of classes per semester.

“I would say that Steven’s self-awareness was very important,” said Kay E. Dunkleberger, director of Disability Services. “When he was granted permission to reenroll, he scheduled nine credits a semester, so essentially he was a part-time student. But knowing and understanding that he could only handle nine credits at a time was key to his success.”

That success included earning an associate degree in information technology: technical support technology emphasis in 2016 and a baccalaureate degree in gaming and simulation (now called game and simulation programming) in 2018. The student once dismissed from the college for his academic deficiencies even made the Dean’s List.

Fantaske uses the Unreal Engine 4 product suite of creation tools to develop virtual reality scenarios that first responders could face in order to test possible user interfaces.“The big difference from when I started to when I finished was my mindset,” he said. “I wasn’t 100% prepared to go to college and then had to work a tough job that wasn’t in my field for motivation to get my degrees.”

Fantaske is putting those degrees to work for NIST, thanks to his perseverance and the Workforce Recruitment Program. WRP is a free resource that connects federal agencies and private businesses with postsecondary students and recent graduates with disabilities, who hope to prove their abilities in the workforce.

An interview with WRP – facilitated by the college – exposed Fantaske’s resume to an array of employers and led to the attractive offer from NIST.

“They liked the knowledge I had and my ability to learn,” Fantaske said. “I’m quite thankful for Penn College. The best part was that we did things that were hands-on and relevant to what we could be doing in the field. I got the skills to do what I need to do and the knowledge to keep up with the new technology that comes out.”

Skills and knowledge that he employs daily for a vital agency in an effort to improve the safety and effectiveness of American heroes: first responders.

“Not many people know about the NIST, but they influence many aspects of the world. They are the ones who help drive the standards that we use every day,” Fantaske said. “And to be part of that in a field that I’m knowledgeable about is amazing and makes me happy to work for them.”

Sounds like a dream reality.

In addition to its bachelor’s degree in game and simulation programming and associate degree in information technology: technical support technology emphasis, Penn College offers baccalaureate degrees in software development and information management, information assurance and cyber security, and information technology: network specialist concentration.

Information about those programs and other majors provided by the college’s School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies is available by calling 570-327-4520.

For more on Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.