• Gracie Goes to College!

  • Article by MIKE CHRISTEN of The Columbia Daily Herald (mchristen@c-dh.net)

    For years, Gracie McDowell has dreamed of going to college.

    The 18-year-old Columbia Central High School student has spent hours thinking about what it would be like to live with other young people, all taking their first steps into adulthood.

    That dream seemed practically impossible for the senior, who lives with Russell-Silver syndrome, a growth disorder characterized by slow physical and mental growth before and after birth.

    Despite some obstacles and a trying application process, McDowell is preparing to attend Union University in Jackson this fall.

    She is one of a select group of students accepted to attend the Union EDGE program, a two year, 48-credit-hour post-secondary education program for students between the age of 18 and 26 with intellectual/developmental disabilities.

    Based on the Think College national standards, an organization dedicated to developing, expanding, and improving inclusive higher education options for people with intellectual disabilities, McDowell and her fellow students will graduate from the program earning a certificate.

    "I am really excited about college because I want to live on my own, and I want to do my own thing," McDowell told The Daily Herald during her regular volunteering period inside Central's library.

    Usually during the block, McDowell would be organizing books, placing them back on the shelf and assisting the school librarians with anything else they needed.

    "I am so excited for the classes," McDowell said, sitting in the library's fantasy section. "I want to live on campus and be a regular student. I want to be independent. I have lived with my mom a long time and I want to get out of my comfort zone."

    At Union, McDowell plans to study elementary education, building on her passion for babysitting and working as a camp counselor.

    McDowell and her family have started a summer program out of their Maury County home, which has grown in enrollment to more than 30 students.

    At McDowell's day camp, the boys attend Camp Camo and the girls group is called Camp Junebug.

    "I love education and I want to teach pre-school through kindergarten," McDowell said. "I love being with kids. I have been babysitting since I was 12."

    McDowell also has a passion for cooking, and says she sees that passion also becoming a big part of her future.

    Although she may be a student with special needs, McDowell attends Central like any other student, taking the same classes as her peers and participating in after school clubs and activities.

    And just like the other students, McDowell has developed a strong bond with some of her educators.One of those teachers is Kevin Creech, who has had McDowell in his marketing courses and yearbook club.

    "I am very proud of Gracie for what she has accomplished," Creech, who also serves as head softball coach and manages the school's bookstore, said. "I wish her the best. This is an amazing opportunity, not just for her, but for students that have similar disabilities like Gracie. She shows that all kids at Central can go to college in some way or form."

    Creech emphasized that McDowell is a road builder for other students with similar disabilities, paving a path toward success after high school.

    "Deciding to go and move to Union, that is a huge step for her and she is a pioneer for students here," Creech said. "They can say, 'I can do it, too.' She has done well in her high school work and took charge of the interview process for college."

    McDowell's parents are also ecstatic to see their daughter heading off to college, ready to experience the world on her own, living with three other roommates.

    "God is good... all the time," her mother, Hynie, said. "Our Gracie is going to college. From the moment Gracie was born, Dave and I had hopes and dreams for her...like all parents do. But somewhere in the past 18 years, we came to realize that going to college may not be possible for her. She has never thought of herself as any different than her friends and that meant after high school, she would go to college and live in a dorm. I saw our hopes and dreams for Gracie to have a college experience come alive again. But like all students, she had to get accepted, and they only take 10 students each year to these programs."

    McDowell was also accepted into a similar program at Vanderbilt University, but her inability to stay on campus was what led her to accepting a spot at Union.

    "We look forward to seeing Gracie in the future and seeing her cross their stage as a graduate at Union University," Creech said.

    As she prepares to leave and go out on her own, McDowell shared a list of things she will miss about Maury County and Columbia, most of them about school.

    "When I leave, I am going to be sad to leave my friends, and I love the teachers that I had and the classes that I took. And I am not going to see the new Central High School," McDowell said.

    As she graduates from Central, McDowell will leave with two other major accomplishments.

    She was selected by Columbia Central High School faculty for the "Cindy Johnson Spirit Award," an award given to the school's most passionate students, and named "Best in School Spirit" by her peers and for earning more than 100 hours of community service during her high school career.