BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Sabrina Wilson, like many high school seniors, is both excited and nervous about going to college.
At The Ohio State University, she’ll live on her own in a dorm, take classes and navigate her way around a campus that’s the size of a small city.
“It’s kind of scary,” admitted Sabrina, adding that she’s looking forward to making friends.
For many teens with Down syndrome, college isn’t usually considered an option, but over the past decade, OSU has joined a growing number of universities to offer programs to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Now, over 300 universities nationwide offer programs that give students an opportunity to engage in academic coursework, gain meaningful work experience, develop independent living skills and participate in campus and community organizations, social activities and events. (See related article.)
“Going to college has not been a choice for any of our kids,” said Sabrina’s mom, Liz Swantack. She and her husband, Mike Wilson, have three adult children in college: Juney, Samantha and Tara. “Once I found out there’s a program for people with intellectual disabilities, I started researching.”
Last summer, Sabrina participated in a weeklong camp at OSU to test it out: living in a dorm, going to the cafeteria for meals and completing classwork. Afterward, Sabrina created a PowerPoint presentation as part of the application process to get into the OSU program.
In addition to her good academic standing at Anthony Wayne High School, Sabrina’s resume includes numerous activities that showcase her talents and interests.
With eight years of dance lessons, Sabrina landed roles in junior high and high school musical performances, including Santa’s helper in Elf Jr., a law student in Legally Blonde, Little Shrek in Shrek Jr. and a lady in waiting in Once Upon a Mattress. She was a member of the bowling team for two years, averaging about 100 in her games. And during her sixth-grade year, she was recruited to the cheerleading team.
Outside of school, Sabrina works at the Perrysburg Chick-fil-A cleaning trays, making kids’ bags and greeting guests in the dining room. She works out twice a week with a personal trainer and has an agent to represent her in modeling and acting. She’s pursued all sorts of interests: seeing Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift in concert, traveling, modeling and absorbing as much as she can about ancient Egypt and Harry Potter.
Standing in front of an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Toledo Museum of Art last month, Sabrina read aloud an interpretation of the hieroglyphics.
“I studied the sarcophagus and Egypt in social studies,” Sabrina said.
She spent spring break in Toronto, attending a performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, visiting the Royal Ontario Museum and dining at the top of the CN Tower. Last year, she traveled to Barcelona and Paris with a group of her aunt’s friends, but she’d like to someday travel to Rome to see the Coliseum.
“She has so much stored up here,” her mom said, pointing to her head. “Sometimes it takes a little longer for it to come out.”
Swantack, a registered nurse who founded Circle 47 to help other parents advocate for their children with intellectual disabilities, knows that a lifelong pursuit of encouraging independence, exploration and inclusion is the reason why Sabrina is ready for college. The family didn’t settle for just teaching Sabrina life skills; they pushed her to continually learn alongside peers.
“The first thing I do when I’m working with kindergartners and first-graders is to tell them, ‘You will go to college,’” Swantack said.
It takes a commitment from parents to not give in and do too much for their child – as well as working with the schools to ensure inclusion in the general population – to prepare kids with intellectual disabilities for succeeding in the world, Swantack said.
“We’re trying to help Sabrina grow to be an independent woman with a job of her choice so she can support herself,” she added.
She acknowledges that the first few years of introducing this idea to the district were challenging, but it’s paid off. In school, Sabrina has had an educational assistant to help her learn alongside her peers as she took geometry, French, Spanish and other courses.
“They supported her in the least restrictive environment with regular kids,” she added. “That filled her brain up with knowledge.”
Along the way, she also made many friends, including Myles Eckert, Anthony Materro and Lily Croy, who drives Sabrina to school.
When Sabrina moves onto campus this fall, she’ll have a resident assistant down the hall and some help from the TOPS (Transition Options in Postsecondary Settings) program in learning the ropes, but she’ll be gaining independent skills while taking classes and working. She won’t have an aide to help her in classes. Her parents plan to move to Columbus to be nearby in case she needs support, and her sister Juney will also be in town as she finishes up her master’s degree in social work at OSU. Samantha, who just finished her degree at Ohio University, is heading to Maine to work as a camp counselor. Her oldest sister, Tara, is enrolled with Southern New Hampshire University.