For most students, college can be one of the most grueling and stressful times in life. There is usually plenty of fun to go around and the final result is rewarding, but the journey to reach that point rarely comes easy.
For University of Kentucky student and soon-to-be graduate Megan McCormick, the adversities were a bit steeper and the path to her commencement ceremony set for this Sunday was a rocky one compared to many of her peers.
McCormick, a 30-year-old liberal arts major, suffers from Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that alters facial features and delays cognitive development.
Growing up with intellectual disabilities, McCormick struggled through grade school from both an academic and social standpoint. In class, the course work was taxing, and she had to face the everyday challenge mostly alone. Her classmates viewed her differently than the others, and bullying soon became a serious issue.
While the challenges were apparent, McCormick always tried to maintain a hearty smile and fill the room with laughter. No matter how difficult school proved to be, she always found a way to make the most of it.
“She loved going to school and was never afraid of school,” said Malkanthie McCormick, Megan’s mother.
After working her way through high school and slowly-but-surely breaking down each barrier placed in front of her, McCormick decided to take on her biggest challenge yet.
“She always wanted to attend college, even since middle school,” her mother said.
So that’s what she did.
McCormick enrolled in classes at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, where she eventually graduated with honors and earned two associates degrees. And then in 2014, she decided it was time to take the next step in her journey and transfer to the University of Kentucky.
As a student with intellectual and developmental disabilities herself, McCormick wanted to make her mark in the field and show other individuals with similar challenges that it’s okay to take leaps of faith. In her mind, the focus needs to be on their abilities, not disabilities.
In order to do that, she began taking elementary special education classes with a focus on individuals with learning disabilities. Her end goal? To become a teacher’s assistant working with kids with special needs right here in Lexington.
“I’m talking about individuals with varying abilities, focusing on their abilities, not disabilities,” she said. “It’s important for them to understand that they can achieve anything they want as long as they can believe in themselves, believe they are capable of doing something right in life.”
Her passion for the success and development of younger individuals with similar challenges has already paved the way for an outside opportunity doing exactly what she’s always dreamed of.
Back in 2017, McCormick was hired as a part-time substitute teacher assistant at Mill Creek Elementary, where she works with students there three days a week.
“My favorite part about this job is making sure all of the children are learning, I’m trying to prepare them for the next level,” she said. “I want to push them a little bit further and higher, just like I tried to do for myself. … I like everything about the job. There’s nothing I dislike about what I’m doing, I absolutely love it.”
Now with a degree in hand to show for the countless hours of work she has put in, McCormick is hoping to earn a promotion that would keep her at the school working as a full-time assistant.
“I’m hoping I can stay at Mill Creek and work full-time,” she said. “I’m hoping next school year they’ll promote me. But look at me, I’m a teacher’s assistant! Anyone can achieve their dreams like me if they fight for it.”
But it’s not just about academics with McCormick. She also regularly competes as a swimmer for Special Olympics and participates in social clubs like Best Buddies, among other activities.
While she loves to push her limits in school, she also wants to break down barriers outside of the classroom as an independent adult. And according to her father, she’s doing just that.
“Megan does her own laundry, cleans, cooks, and has her own driver’s license. She actually passed it on her first try,” McCormick’s father, Jim McCormick, said. “She drives her mother around everywhere. … She has her own apartment in the basement, cleans herself and goes about her own life. She’s extremely independent.”
On Sunday, McCormick will walk across the stage at Rupp Arena and shake President Eli Capilouto’s hand, officially breaking down the final academic barrier she set for herself all the way back in middle school nearly two decades ago. And she’ll do so with a final GPA of 3.645 and as the recipient of the 2019 Carol Adelstein Award, an honor given annually to a student or students with a disability who serve as an inspiration to the UK community through excellence in academics, leadership, extracurricular activities, and social and personal qualities.
“When she finally graduates and gets a job working with kids with disabilities, she will immediately become a role model to them,” her mother told KSR. “Those kids will see Megan, and what she’s overcome, and believe in themselves.”
For McCormick, who will become the first individual with Down syndrome to graduate from both BCTC and UK, her big moment on Sunday is just the beginning of her long-term goals coming to fruition. It doesn’t stop with the flowing blue gown or the diploma she is finally set to receive.
It’s about the lasting impact.
“I want to be someone who is remembered for generations as a legacy for others to follow in my footsteps to pursue whatever they want,” she said. “It’s important to me because I want these individuals with varying abilities to learn from me as a role model. I want them to believe in themselves like I did.”
No matter what obstacles stand in your way, McCormick hopes that you can take her story and find inspiration from it.
“You can believe in everything that you do as long as you’re being you and pursuing your dreams,” she said. “Just never, ever give up.”