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LOGAN — A whole new generation of students in Utah now has access to higher education. Utah State University opened a new program this school year for intellectually disabled students. For them, it offers the same promise that a college education does to any other young adult.
Sarah Bullen and Taylor Henrie make their way across campus like a few thousand other USU students. They learn the rigors of college, meet new friends and prepare to become adults.
But unlike every other student, they are among the first class of Aggies Elevated, a program for intellectually disabled students — students with brain disorders, autism and Down syndrome. But that's not their focus.
“You have to stand up for what you believe in,” Henrie said. “I learned in my home when I was home by myself, I would look at myself and say, 'I know I have Down syndrome, but that’s not who I am.’ ”
These students aspire to the same things as every other incoming freshman.
“I learn different skills that probably will come in handy later in my life when I look back, when I look back and say, ‘Oh, that was so cool,’ ” Bullen said.
Beth Foley, dean of the college of education, said, “We’ll find students more able to find employment, more able to live a quality life that they haven’t been able to achieve before not because they haven’t had the ability or the desire for it, but because they haven’t had the opportunities before.”
"Opportunity" is the theme for Utah State's vision. Access to higher education has become available over the decades for women, African-Americans, those with physical disabilities and now this last remaining barrier.
“It’s a dream come true in many ways,” said Henrie’s parents, because they've dreamed the same things for their daughters as they did their other children.
Sarah’s mom, Julie Bullen, said, “You wonder if they’re ever going to get a job, if they’re ever going to be able to be married, if they’re going to be able to become independent.”
Sarah’s father, Jonathan Bullen, said, “Sarah is a special person. The chance to see her have what I’ve had, and what other kids have, means everything to me.”
The parents teamed with the university to find existing programs modeled after one at UCLA. Then they helped provide funding and a jump start, not just for their daughters, but for others waiting for opportunity.
Taylor’s father, Kim Henrie, said, “This is a great, great step for her and for all those students.”
And Taylor’s mother, Linda Henrie, said, “It will change the life of our daughter. It will change the life of the people she associates with. It will cause a paradigm shift.”
Aggies Elevated is a two-year certificate program. When these students finish, they'll attend graduation with other students.