Center, Dylan poses with his tutors, left Rosemary Engstrom and right Ben Haddix. Courtesy photo.

Man with Down syndrome attends 4-year college

By TERRI ROSE KUEHL, mother and advocate

Goals and a 'YES Team' help complete Dylan's journey into college

Dylan Kuehl, 32, young artist and businessman, and most importantly, my son, from Washington state, always dreamed of being a student at his local 4-year college, The Evergreen State College (TESC).

First, he attended his local South Puget Sound Community College, adult basic education class. After five years, it was determined that Dylan needed more focus on education rather than the often disruptive environment the class provided. Many of the students in this class (all people with various intellectual disabilities) were not there to be serious learners but rather for the social connection. Dylan found this environment distracting and stopped attending. The following five years he worked with private tutors helping him focus on his ultimate goal – becoming a TESC student.

Dylan was featured in Apostrophe’s Exclamation Point series back in 2013. Read his story here.

The YES Team

Dylan had a lot of help to be the first man in Washington state to be accepted into a four-year college. Here he proudly displays his student ID to The Evergreen State College.

Dylan had a lot of help to be the first man in Washington state to be accepted into a four-year college. Here he proudly displays his student ID to The Evergreen State College. Courtesy photo.

At 19, he proclaimed his educational goal at a person-centered planning event. These events are designed to allow a person to dream and dream big. Although Dylan lives his life with Down syndrome, person-centered planning, sometimes called future planning meetings, are a great tool for anyone who wants to talk about and create a visual plan for what’s possible when people come together and say yes. Invitations are sent to peers, teachers, friends and people from the community who you want to be on your Yes Team. A Yes Team is a collection of people who support you, your dreams and goals, whether you have a disability or not.

In Dylan’s earlier years, his team included teachers and classmates who focused on school. But as he got older, his invitation list added more community members that discussed his adult life goals after public education. On this night, nearly two dozen people attended, including former teachers, friends and people from as far away as Seattle.

If you’re fortunate to raise a child with a disability, you know that it truly takes a village to raise a child. As his mother and business partner, I am and always will be his biggest advocate and fan. This event validated for Dylan and myself that others wanted to help him find what he wanted, show what he’s good at, confirm what he had passion for, and even more importantly, tell what he didn’t want to do.

Failure an important step to success

An interesting fact many people overlook is that when forced to do things we don’t like to do, we usually fail. However, I’ve always believed there is great value in failing.

You learn much about a person through their failures and what went wrong. You find out if they really have passion and motivation for what they say they want. Do they quit when times get hard? Are they capable of learning from their mistakes? A person cannot be a quitter if they plan on going to college. College is hard and full of tasks that a person might not yet have mastered. Some failure is inevitable. But you have to want to embrace challenge and all it offers, including failure.

Evergreen requires students to have a high school diploma or pass the GED to attend. Dylan had a certificate of completion for his years at Capital High School, but this is not considered a diploma. After reaching the age of 24, Evergreen no longer requires submission of a GED test. You fill out an application based on life experience.

A major advantage in Dylan’s yellow-brick road to TESC came from Kokua, a nonprofit organization located in Lacey, Wash., and their Literacy & Education for Adults with Disabilities (LEAD) program. KOKUA has a contract with TESC to find current students interested in tutoring adults with intellectual disabilities to help them achieve their educational goals while providing a sense of inclusion on campus as they focus on their goals.

Dylan became the first community member accepted in the LEAD program, being a non-Kokua member as he doesn’t receive residential or community services from them. They believed in Dylan’s goal and how he has proven to reach his dream. His tutors during the past four years helped him outline his goals for college and life ahead.

Dylan wrote a speech about his experiences working with his tutors. He was honored to give that speech at the Kokua graduation. In the audience sat a current Evergreen faculty member, Chico Herbison. Impressed with Dylan, he became a staunch member of Dylan’s Yes Team that night and is now his official faculty advisor.

Dylan’s completed TESC application included two packets of information, references from Washington state Senator Karen Frasier, the current Washington state lieutenant governor, a couple local mayors, and people who watched Dylan succeed over the years and believed in his right to go to Evergreen, among other prominent community representatives.

Mr. Herbison provided emotional support as Dylan started his journey to convince TESC that he was a worthy future student. He assisted Dylan with three challenging appointments with the admissions director and provided encouragement when some faculty, clearly and quite rudely, made it clear they did not want Dylan to attend TESC. This process took more than eight months. Dylan was notified via email that he lacked academic history, and he needed to prove himself.

I kept asking and wondering, “What does prove himself mean?” Isn’t that what happens when someone attends college? They prove themselves and part of that process means sometimes they fail. Students without disabilities fail. Wasn’t the director missing the point, seeing Dylan as an automatic failure and what it might mean to school statistics, rather than embracing Dylan’s determination and courage to take on this biggest challenge ever?

4-year college results

The college decided Dylan needed more academic history. Instead of enrolling him as a full-time (12-16 credits) student, they accepted him as a “special student” (not a disability term) in the Evening Weekend Studies program. He is currently earning college credit and proving himself. He has private tutors seven days a week, sometimes two in one day. He puts in 30 hours per week working on his photography class assignments and a separate tutor teaches him college-level critical thinking, reading and writing skills.

Read an essay by his tutor, Ben Haddix, here.

Dylan is officially the first person in Washington state with Down syndrome to attend a 4-year college. With the hard work of a dedicated Yes Team, Dylan has began his dream of attending TESC. He has earned college credit and continues to work toward becoming a full-time student. Small, successful steps, and I believe one day soon, he’ll achieve his ultimate goal of being a full-time student.

A YES team like this shouldn’t be used as a concept for only people with disabilities but a universal process about surrounding yourself with positive people who believe in you and want to help you reach your dreams. Whatever they may be.

Dylan was featured in Apostrophe’s Exclamation Point series back in 2013. Read his story here.

2 thoughts on “Man with Down syndrome attends 4-year college

  1. Dylan, wonderful to hear this news about your life these days. It’s been many years since we’ve seen each other. Congratulations on all your hard work. It’s impressuve to hear about all that it took to get to this point.
    I work as a children’s pastor now in a radical inclusion ministry. I will share this story with the families I work with. Yours is such a great story about how people can work together in community to support everyone in being their full selves and achieving their goals. I’m also struck by how long it can take. What strength, courage, and love.

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