Merlene Davis: BCTC graduate is a role model for us all

Megan McCormick is graduating from BCTC today. She wants to work as a para-educator in elementary schools and serve as a role model.
Megan McCormick is graduating from BCTC today. She wants to work as a para-educator in elementary schools and serve as a role model. Lexington Herald-Leader

There will be more than 2,100 students graduating from the Bluegrass Community & Technical College Sunday, having earned a certificate, an associate's degree or diploma that they hope will lead to a better future.

Among them will be honor graduate Megan McCormick, a highly motivated woman who will be receiving an associate's degree in education in hopes of landing a full-time job and independence.

That achievement is all the more significant because McCormick has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that could have been a roadblock to her goals. Instead, it has become almost a sidebar, overshadowed by the long list of accomplishments she has mastered in her lifetime.

Although BCTC officials could not say for sure, others believe she is the first student with Down syndrome to earn an associate's degree with honors.

"Our project works statewide," said Jeff Bradford, director of the Supported Higher Education Project which helps students with intellectual disabilities like McCormick to attend college. "She is the first person I know of with Down syndrome who has completed a two-year program in Kentucky. I've been in this field over 20 years."

McCormick, 24, wants to work as a para-educator at the kindergarten and elementary level.

"I want to be independent, I want a full-time job, and I want to drive my own car," McCormick said. "And I want to work with children, serving as a role model for them."

And what a role model she is.

Megan straddles social boundaries previously established for Down syndrome, Bradford said.

"She has one foot in both worlds," he said. "She doesn't fit in the little box that society put her in."

That little box could be one that shelters her. But highly capable Megan will have none of that.

Because of Down syndrome, "I tend to have a thought process delay," she said. "But I am trying to think like a typical person, like my parents, like my siblings. I do have a lot of friends with a variety of disabilities, including Down syndrome. I just have a higher education."

Mind you, she has had to work hard and has had help along the way, starting with her parents, Drs. James and Malkanthie McCormick of Lexington.

"We had the same expectations of her as we did our other five children," Malkanthie McCormick said.

Added James McCormick, "The worry is that when we are gone, she wouldn't know how to do the things that other kids pick up naturally."

When their daughter was born, Malkanthie McCormick admits, the diagnosis was a shock.

"However, a co-worker who came to see me when my baby was born said, 'Why are you so anxious? You have had children before. Don't you know how to raise children?'"

It was just what she needed. The couple decided Malkanthie would work with physical and occupational therapy issues and James would concentrate on health issues.

The couple stopped looking for milestones and started capitalizing on their daughter's strengths. They withheld sweets from her diet, giving her fruits and vegetables as she grew up to counter potential problems with obesity.

They noticed their daughter could concentrate for long periods of time and that she was patient with discovering things. So they bought puzzles and worked with Megan, soon noticing their daughter recognized the shapes without seeing the pictures.

Physical therapy started when Megan was 2 to address her muscle weaknesses — a common characteristic of Down syndrome. The couple monitored her hearing and eyesight and then began working on her ability to read and comprehend.

"If she couldn't do something, we looked to find a solution," Malkanthie McCormick said.

"She has taught us more about raising children than we knew before," James McCormick said.

Malkanthie McCormick became an advocate not just for her own child but for others with disabilities.

"She ought to be teaching other people how to advocate," said Veronica Dale, counselor at the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. "She is like a pit bull. She would call President Obama if she thought it would benefit Megan.

"I can't stress enough that parents should have expectations for their child with disabilities for them to achieve their full potential," Dale said. "She is the top mom."

Bradford agreed.

"She plays so many roles," he said. "She will go and meet with professors and she and Megan have presented to legislators. She is not just advocating for her daughter. She is truly one of the most remarkable women I have ever met. She put together a great team."

Malkanthie McCormick is overjoyed that her daughter will be graduating and that it is happening on Mother's Day.

"With her graduating, "she said, "Mother's Day is so special."

But she doesn't take credit for Megan's successes. The couple gives credit to the help they received from Fayette County schools, Voc-Rehab, SHEP and a host of tutors who supported Megan's willingness to work hard.

"This not just a feel-good story," Bradford said. "Megan is graduating with honors. If you give people the proper support and they are motivated, you can see people excel at a higher level. That is the same for all people."

James McCormick said he knows of other people with Down syndrome who are high functioning in other areas. "They don't all have Megan's gifts, but they are very high functioning. Some are gifted singers," he said, adding, "And these are not doctors' children. It is not because we were physicians. We were very ignorant physicians."

Megan has excelled, but she still has other goals. She recently got her driver's permit and she lives in an apartment in her parent's basement. Now she wants a job. She has spent hundreds of hours in pre-school, kindergarten and elementary classrooms working with children to earn her degree.

"I've had teachers who have given me their support and influenced my ability to be successful," Megan said. "I want to be able to pay it back."

I can't think of a better role model for children with disabilities than Megan. I can't think of a better example for parents with disabled children than Megan and her parents. And I can't think of any reason Megan wouldn't be a great para-educator in our public schools.