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By Rachel Paula Abrahamson

More than 2 million people watched — and wept — as Rion Holcombe, a 20-year-old man with Down syndrome, joyfully opened an acceptance letter from South Carolina’s Clemson University in 2013. Behind the camera, Rion’s mom was crying too.

“I always knew Rion would have a great life,” Susan Holcombe told TODAY Parents. “But I didn’t ever imagine he could go to college, no way.”

In fact, when Rion was 5, a school psychologist told his parents to expect their son to plateau at age 13. Many parents of children with Down syndrome recall hearing similarly dire predictions — that they should brace themselves for lives of hardship, or even that their kids would be better off institutionalized.

These days, though, special college and university programs are changing that storyline. There are more than 265 postsecondary opportunities across the United States for students with Down syndrome, autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities. They range from career-focused programs at community colleges to offerings that focus on liberal arts and academics at four-year colleges and universities, and they all have this in common: They foster self-help and independence, preparing students to hold down jobs and take good care of themselves.

Even if graduates are not able to live entirely on their own after completing these programs, their lives — and their confidence — tend to improve in dramatic ways. Dr. Meg Grigal, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Community Inclusion in Boston, told TODAY Parents that graduates enjoy more job opportunities and a “better quality of life.”

Rion Holcombe, a graduate of Clemson University's LIFE program, is gainfully employed and able to handle all his own expenses. Here, he poses with medals he's won in swimming, baseball and other sports.Molly Claire Photography / Courtesy of Susan Holcombe

Rion couldn't agree more. A 2016 graduate of Clemson’s two-year LIFE program in South Carolina, the 25-year-old is juggling two jobs that allow him to pay for all his own expenses, including medical care and bowling dates with his girlfriend, Rachel Lewis, who also has Down syndrome. (He works as a water-slide attendant at a local YMCA, and he’s also an office technician at an occupational therapy practice.)

Rion Holcombe with his girlfriend, Rachel LewisCourtesy of Susan Holcombe

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While at Clemson, Rion lived on campus and took classes such as functional literature, self-advocacy and traffic safety. Rion also developed listening skills that saved the life of his 81-year-old grandmother, Pam Copeland, last summer. “He didn’t like the way she sounded when they were on the phone, so he texted me to check on her,” Rion’s mom Susan recalled. Copeland was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and heart failure.

“The confidence and focus that Rion gained at Clemson made him acutely aware that was something was very wrong,” Susan said. “He’s become extremely observant.”

Rachel Grace is another success story. Like Rion, Rachel became an internet sensation when her parents filmed the moment she learned she was headed to Pennsylvania’s East Stroudsburg University. Now in her third year of a three-year program called Career, Independent Living and Learning Studies (CILLS), Rachel manages the ESU women’s basketball team and teaches kids’ hoops at a YMCA.

“After college, I want to get a job in sports management,” Rachel told TODAY Parents. “And I want my own apartment.”

Rachel Grace, a student at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, manages ESU's women's basketball team. In March 2018 she was able to meet Stephen Curry, a professional basketball player for the Golden State Warriors.Courtesy of Thomas Grace

Rachel’s dreams could become a reality in the spring when she earns a certificate of completion.

“A big part of the program is learning independent living skills,” said Rachel’s mother, Deb Grace. “On weekends they do laundry, clean and shop for food. This forces them to make lists, manage money and pay bills.” In fact, Deb often jokes that Rachel is better equipped to live on her own than her brothers Ryan, 22, and Colin, 19, who attend Johns Hopkins University and University of South Carolina, respectively.

Rachel Grace, second from left, attends an East Stroudsburg University Warriors football game with her fellow students in ESU's Career, Independent Living and Learning Studies program.Courtesy of Thomas Grace

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Cody Sullivan, 23, is another example of a person with an intellectual disability who is finding success in ways he never imagined. Last April, Cody walked in the commencement ceremony at Concordia University and became the first student with Down syndrome to complete a four-year higher education program in Oregon. Today, he works as an educational assistant in a pre-K classroom at Faubion Elementary School in Portland. It’s an occupation that matches what he studied at Concordia: He graduated with a certificate of achievement from the College of Education.

“All the children want Teacher Cody to read and play with them,” Cody’s mother, Ann Donaca-Sullivan, told TODAY Parents. “Cody is always aware of the safety of the kids. When one is crying or hurt, he is immediately at their side helping them.”

Since graduating from Concordia University in Portland, Cody Sullivan has stayed busy with his job at an elementary school and with myriad activities.Courtesy of Ann Donaca-Sullivan

Cody reports to school five days a week, ready to take on any task he is assigned, such as helping at activity centers and putting fliers in backpacks. “I love recess time,” he said. “We play and draw with chalk. It is my work and I get a paycheck!”

Cody made lifelong friends at college — he once had 200 people over to his parents’ house for a party — but just try locking him down for a coffee date. (It’s hard to do because he’s so busy!) Cody also coaches an inclusive basketball program called All-In-Hoops, takes classes at CU in exercise and sports sciences, and lifts weights.

Ann said her son is proof that with modifications, a 100 percent inclusive college experience is possible for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “They want and deserve the same opportunities as others,” she said.

Cody agrees wholeheartedly.

“You can do it,” he said. “Never, never give up.”

For more information about college and university programs for people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, visit this Think College website.

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