AnnaRose Rubright has always worked to be a positive role model for her younger sisters. As the oldest of six girls, it was important to the 24- year- old from Medford, New Jersey, to show them the importance of hard work and how even with a disability, she could accomplish her dreams.
In early May, one of those dreams turned into a reality when she achieved her lifelong goal of graduating from a four-year university. In the process, she became the first person with down syndrome to receive a diploma from Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.
Rubright graduated with a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film on May 8. The ceremony was held over Zoom due to COVID-19. It included words from Rowan's president, Dr. Ali Houshmand, and N.J. State Sen. Steve Sweeney. While graduation ceremonies are usually exciting affairs, it was especially impactful for Rubright.
"It was very emotional for me and a bit overwhelming," Rubright said. "Most of my family members cried."
Rubright's family witnessed firsthand her long and often arduous higher education journey that began after she graduated from Shawnee high school in 2014. She earned an associate’s degree from Rowan College at Burlington County, a community college that partners with Rowan University, in 2017. Shortly thereafter, she officially transferred to Rowan University.
"During the school term, there is not a lot of time for free activity," said Lin Rubright, AnnaRose's mother. "She is sitting at that kitchen table, working and plugging away. Because what takes you or me 20 minutes to read, could take AnnaRose anywhere from an hour to three hours depending on the context and the vocabulary."
Rubright was one of 2400 students with disabilities at Rowan University during the last academic year, according to John Woodruff, the director for the academic success center and disability resources at Rowan. He says students like AnnaRose are held to the same standard as every other student on Rowan University’s campus.
"None of the courses for AnnaRose or other students with disabilities are 'watered down.' The standards are not lower," Woodruff said. "They have the same expectations to complete and pass the course."
Rowan does offer students with disabilities accommodations to help them through college. Some of those include tutoring and even pairing those students with graduate students. They help with organizational skills and time management, something Woodruff says Rubright took advantage of while at Rowan.
"This is rare, her achievement is amazing," Woodruff said. "I think it's a testament to her perseverance not to give up."
College students with disabilities are more likely to drop out of school, and only 34 percent complete a four-year program – far less than their able-bodied peers, according to the National Center for Special Education Research.
"There were times when I watched her frustration, I watched her struggle, and I said to her 'you have an associates degree, you can be done if you want, you've already done so much," Lin Rubright said. "But she just wouldn't quit."
On the contrary, Rubright sought out even more opportunities. During her tenure at Rowan, she was inducted into Delta Alpha Pi, a national honor society for students with disabilities; she addressed a panel at the United Nations; she lobbied legislators in Washington D.C. and Trenton for disability rights; and she created multiple videos for the National Down Syndrome Society.
She was even part of a PSA with actress Olivia Wilde, that was part of a campaign for World Down Syndrome day in 2016.
Through her experiences, Rubright has realized her love for online media, documentary, podcasts, and storytelling. She hopes to one day work in radio; she is also working with her family to create a production company. With the company, Rubright hopes to tell stories impacting people with disabilities. One topic she hopes to cover is "Law Syndrome," which Rubright describes as laws that unfairly allow companies to profit off the disabled.
As she embarks on the next leg of her journey, Rubright has advice for other students with disabilities, especially those hoping to earn a bachelor’s degree of their own.
"Advocate for yourself,” she said.
“And be heard in the real world."