Rachel High lives with Down syndrome and just graduated with a bachelor’s degree

Adelaide’s wife Rachel High is among thousands of Australian university students celebrating their graduation ceremony this year.

But his university career was unique.

Flinders University, where Rachel studied, said she believed she was the first person living with Down syndrome to graduate from college in Australia.

“It makes me feel good,” said Rachel, reflecting on 10 years of hard work.

“[The best bit was] the ability for me to really study and really deepen the study.

“I grew up on stage, basically, and then I thought it was my career.

“It broadens your thinking, [and] it broadened my perspective in the theater and performing areas.

Overcome social isolation at university

Rachel joined the University’s Up the Hill program over ten years ago and then took a foundation course.

The 44-year-old earned enough points to apply for a Bachelor of Arts degree and majored in theater and screen studies.

Now, parchment in hand, she said she felt excited and proud after a “long trip”.

Rachel studied with the help of a mentor.(ABC News: Carl Saville)

But this trip was far from straightforward, with “bad vibes” pushing her close to breaking point early in her studies.

“I was nervous and a little scared because I had no idea what to expect from college, frankly,” she said.

“There was a guy – I’ll just call him ‘H’ – who didn’t really want me in his band, as such.

“It was the worst and I felt really depressed. I was like, ‘Why am I here?'”

Rachel’s mother, Miriam High, agreed that social isolation was a major obstacle initially.

“There was no mentor, there was no one to meet her at the door and take her into the classroom, there was no one to share this experience with her… and it caused a incredible isolation, so much so that she didn’t want to stay, ”Miriam mentioned.

“She had had enough [and] she said: ‘I don’t like it over there, I’m all alone, nobody talks to me.

“Because people with intellectual disabilities don’t go to college, they aren’t designed to support them that way. “

“Lots of tears” breaking the course

Miriam and her husband, John, set up a paid “buddy” support role for Rachel, and Flinders University then offered a mentor for Rachel’s second half of her degree.

Rachel said that connecting with others and “meeting new people” has quickly become one of her favorite parts of college life.

“I made friends through my mentors and their friends as well,” she said.

“I am [also] a visual learner, so I respond well to visual learning. Now I think I’m glad I stayed and glad I worked hard for this. “

Woman with Down's Syndrome wearing college gown and holding certificate rolled up with her elderly parents
Rachel’s graduation ceremony was attended by her parents Miriam and John.(ABC News: Isabel Dayman)

Miriam said her daughter’s academic experiences had been like “any other student”, with “a lot of bad days and a lot of tears” along the way.

“She’s determined and she gets along and does things,” Miriam said.

“We became her study group, if you will, so we took the information home, we helped her develop it and find the relevant material that she needed.

“We found ourselves helping him translate [academic language], get that, then she was able to write the homework. “

Call on universities to improve access

Diversity and Inclusion researcher Sally Robinson oversaw Rachel’s final research paper, Graduating University as a Woman with Down Syndrome: Reflecting on My Education.

The article was published in a peer-reviewed journal last month.

“It was a really big project and we really had to dig,” said Professor Robinson.

“I was very strongly convinced of the merits of his work, but a peer-reviewed academic article is empirical evidence that this is high-quality academic work.”

Two women wearing college dresses and hats
Rachel with her Research Director, Professor Sally Robinson.(ABC News: Isabel Dayman)

The article consisted of a review of the literature examining the academic experiences of people living with an intellectual disability, and an autoethnography dissecting Rachel’s own experiences.

Professor Robinson, who specializes in disability and community inclusion, said universities have a long way to go in properly helping students with intellectual and cognitive disabilities access higher education.

“People with sensory disabilities or people with physical disabilities have a right to support for their learning at university, but people with intellectual disabilities are not,” she said.

She said improving access was as much about changing community attitudes as it was about providing practical assistance, such as time extensions and program adjustments.

“We need to raise our expectations for the success of people with intellectual disabilities in university,” she said.

“Rachel shows us how possible this is.”

“It really changed my world”

Rachel said she was thrilled to have “something to show” for a decade spent listening, reading, writing, studying and revising.

She hoped that her success would be seen as proof that other people living with an intellectual disability could continue their education with the appropriate supports in place.

” The stereotypes [are things] they should ignore, ”she said.

“People like me should ignore this and work on it to teach them a lesson.

“[Studying] has really changed my world and my life. “

A woman with Down's syndrome wearing a green top
Rachel struggled with social isolation and her endurance paid off.(ABC News: Carl Saville)

Miriam said she felt “overwhelmed” and “thrilled” by her daughter’s success.

“Everyone calls us and says, ‘Isn’t that fantastic?’, And it is,” she said.

“We can’t really believe it… it’s just a lot more than we ever dreamed it could be.

“When Rachel was born 44 years ago we were told it would be a good idea if we put her in a house and have another child.

“We didn’t, of course – but that was the feeling then for a person with a developmental disability.

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