I pass Dylan Kuehl as he talks with someone at a table outside of the library at The Evergreen State College. Wearing a flannel shirt and book bag, he is just like any other student on campus, or any college student around the United States for that matter. And that is just what Dylan wants. “I don’t want to be the center of attention,” he says. “I’m just another college student.”
Dylan is a first year student at Evergreen, a musician, and a dancer. But as much as Dylan is like every other college student, he does have one challenge that other students at Evergreen don’t have. You see, Dylan just happens to have Down syndrome.
One of Evergreen’s Five Foci of Learning is “learning across significant differences,” which seeks to prepare students to live and work in a diverse world. This learning focus is directly related to the core theme of diversity and equity that stems from Evergreen’s mission. Dylan is changing the face of diversity at Evergreen. He is the first and only student in Washington State with Down syndrome that is enrolled in a four-year college program. But Dylan’s path to achieving his dream of attaining a college degree hasn’t been an easy one.
Dylan has cleared a number of hurdles to enroll in Evergreen, facing every challenge with patience and determination. Dylan’s mom, Terri, admits that when her son told her he wanted to go to college, she put some obstacles in his path. “He has convinced us all with his history of commitment, and he has never wavered,” she says. Terri wanted to be sure that Dylan had what it took to make it, and with patience and determination he proved himself to her time and again, by rising to every change that she offered him. “It’s about people having access if they have shown the hard work,” she emphasizes, “if they have shown the commitment, if they have a support system, if they have goals.”
Dylan is someone who wants to be known more for his abilities than his disability. His determination is all the more inspiring when you look at what he has overcome to become a student, and no, I am not talking about his disability. Probably the biggest hurdle Dylan has faced has been the “naysayers”- the people that thought he doesn’t belong in college. “You’ve got to find ways to find yessayers and not deal with naysayers,” Dylan says. “Naysayers have always been a big challenge for me.”
Randi Miller, community programs coordinator for Kokua, was a yessayer to Dylan and Terri. She helped Dylan get involved with the LEAD program (Literacy and Education for Adults with Disabilities), which is a learner driven program that matches learners that have disabilities with tutors. “The beauty of this program is that everybody is learning,” says Terri.
Dylan also benefits from the support that his tutor, Spencer Ghner an Evergreen student and member of the LEAD Beyond Club, provides. That is something that makes him very similar to other freshpeople entering college. In a study published in the spring 2011 Journal of College Reading and Learning, students who were tutored had higher rates of graduation than those who were not tutored. A growing body of research indicates that first year students are more successful with not just academic support, but also emotional and social support. Dylan has all three.
Spencer helps Dylan with acquiring college success skills like learning how to compose his writing to meet academic standards and format it at the college level. “This has been a life changing experience,” says Spencer. “I have had opportunities to show what I can do as a person and an educator.”
Dylan also has support from Dr. Chico Herbison, who says that Dylan just like his other students. Dylan is well-served by Evergreen’s interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning because he has a wide range of talents and interests, and he connects them in new and exciting ways. “Such is the nature of a learning community model that encourages collaborative activities and provides a strong peer support system within, and outside of, the classroom,” says Herbison.
Dylan is looking forward to his intensive dance class this summer. He says that dancing fulfills him physically and emotionally. Herbison explains that traditional learning models too often focus on students’ shortcomings and not their strengths. “To emphasize our students’ strengths is to provide them with a level of confidence that is so crucial to success both in the classroom and in the community,” he adds. “There are important lessons to be learned from educating students with disabilities, lessons that can be applied to populations without disabilities.”
Terri acknowledges that college is not for everyone that has Down syndrome, just like college is not necessarily the right fit for everyone in general. “No two people in the world are the same, just like no two people that live with Down syndrome are the same,” Terry says. The qualifications should be skills based, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or the presence of a disability she emphasizes.
Dylan acknowledges that disabilities may present a challenge, but they should not be barriers. Dylan is blazing the trail with his abilities, changing people’s perceptions of those that live with disabilities while he follows his dream. Soon there may be another individual out there challenging those perceptions too. Dylan’s story has inspired another individual that lives with Down syndrome to apply to Evergreen for the fall quarter. Dylan may be the first, but he won’t be certainly won’t be the last.