People with disabilities have another pathway to future success, thanks to a new program launched at Texas A&M. The Aggie ACHIEVE program will give students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, like Down syndrome, the ability to experience the first inclusive four-year postsecondary education program in the state.
The program, which is residential, gives these students the chance to live on campus, attend classes, and join clubs and organizations — just like their typical peers. Dr. Carly Gilson, assistant professor of special education, was one of the people who pioneered the program.
“This is not meant to be a place to come get the college experience and then go back to what you were doing before,” she said in a statement. “The intention is to provide a rigorous education, academics and employment experience that will prepare these young adults to go out and work in the community in a job they are interested in that matches their strengths.”
Gilson wanted to make sure that Aggie ACHIEVE students would be included fully on campus. “We have a campus community of 60,000 students and we want to make sure that the students in Aggie ACHIEVE are going to be integrated fully into that campus community,” she said.
According to the university, the first two years will help students acclimate to Texas A&M through seminars helping them learn about independent living, career awareness and self-determination. They also will be required to audit credit courses. The final two years will be more career-focused, with career development and field specialization, including internships in the career field students are interested in.
The students will also have ACHIEVEmates, current Texas A&M students who will build relationships to help further foster inclusion, and guide them through their college experience. ACHIEVEmates can work in four different areas, helping the students with academics, social skills and healthy eating, fitness, and organizational skills. But ACHIEVEmates aren’t being put into place solely for the benefit of the students with disabilities; it’s also to benefit the neurotypical student body, most of whom have little to no interaction with people with disabilities. “We want this to be something that, in addition to the direct population it serves, it also provides leadership and training opportunities for our current students,” Gilson said.
Through this inclusion, students — both neurotypical and with disabilities — will be able to forge relationships that will, hopefully, lead to the beginning of the end of ableist mindsets that lead people to see a life with disability as one that is not worth living.
Courtney Osburn is one of the students who will be entering the Aggie ACHIEVE program. Deprived of oxygen at birth, she was left with brain damage and an occasional stutter. She dreamed of going to Texas A&M, where her family has attended college for generations. “I hate when people say I can’t do something,” Osburn said to KVUE. “In my gut, I knew college was right for me. I’m ready to find out who I’m meant to be in life.”
Osburn’s mother, Beca, is likewise thrilled for her daughter to have this chance. “As a mother I am proud and I am grateful she has this opportunity to experience the world and figure out what it is she wants,” she said. “It means that she’s got an opportunity to blossom and follow her dreams.”
Currently attending a summer camp for people with disabilities on the Texas A&M campus, Osburn is working on preparing to begin college, already living in a dorm. “I love it,” she said. “It feels like family. I’m the one that gets to carry on my family tradition. It’s home.”
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