A few weeks ago Rion Holcombe, a 20-year-old man from Moore, South Carolina, learned that he’d been accepted to Clemson University. Ryan has Down Syndrome and so many colleges would not accept him; but Clemson University offers the ClemsonLIFE program, which is “designed for students with intellectual disabilities who desire a postsecondary experience on a college campus.”
Rion’s mother filmed him as he opened the acceptance letter and gradually realized that he would really be going to college. Rion’s sheer joy at the news is contagious! The heartwarming video was posted to YouTube; and as of this writing, more than 1,240,000 people have viewed it.
Rion Holcombe will be attending the ClemsonLIFE program beginning August 2014. I was curious about the innovative program, so I contacted Elizabeth Gorman, the program’s director.
The ClemsonLIFE Program began six years ago, when a Clemson University professor joined with a concerned parent to raise funds and develop a curriculum. The program provides a coordinated course of study that includes career exploration and preparation along with self-awareness, discovery, and personal improvement through a framework of courses, job internships, and community participation. Since developing independence is a part of the goal, students live in on-campus apartments with support from resident advisors.
I was surprised to learn that ClemsonLIFE is one of fifty specialty programs across the United States—five of which are in the state of South Carolina—designed to help intellectually challenged students to learn.
The ClemsonLIFE program is typically a two-year academic program, with an optional third year which is by-invitation-only. There are internship opportunities, and the program helps students to get to their jobs at restaurants or shops nearby. The life outcome for each student will depend on his or her abilities and personal situation. Eight of the sixteen graduates of the program are now employed—a success rate that is a source of pride for Elizabeth Gorman. Some alumni are living independently; others reside with parents or another adult caretaker.
Parents of children with Down Syndrome and other disabilities , she said, often do not expect that their child will ever attend college; so they haven’t planned financially to cover the cost of tuition. Then they are shocked when their child is accepted, and must search for grants or loans to assist with the cost of a college education. Gorman urges parents of special needs students to begin saving early, and to make plans for their children’s higher education.