Education

‘I want to open doors.’ UK graduate with Down Syndrome breaks another barrier.

‘Focus on your abilities and not your disabilities.’ UK grad with Down Syndrome defies odds.

Megan McCormick, a 2019 graduate of the University of Kentucky, will receive her bachelor's degree Sunday in liberal studies. McCormick has Down Syndrome.
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Megan McCormick, a 2019 graduate of the University of Kentucky, will receive her bachelor's degree Sunday in liberal studies. McCormick has Down Syndrome.

At 30, Megan McCormick has been in the spotlight more than most people.

In 2013, she became the first student with Down Syndrome to graduate from Bluegrass Community and Technical College with an associate degree in education.

Two years ago, she made headlines when she returned to work part-time as a para-educator at Mill Creek Elementary, the same elementary school she attended.

On Sunday, she will reach another huge milestone, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky. She is believed to be the first person with Down Syndrome to graduate from UK, although complete records have not been kept.

And yet to McCormick, 30, all of these achievements, all the things people told her she couldn’t do, are just steps in her lifelong quest to show the world that someone with “varying abilities,” as she describes it, could get an education that leads to a full-time job working with kids like her.

“I want them to learn from me,” she said of the children she works with in the Early Start program at Mill Creek. “I came out of special ed to teach those children, to help them fulfill their potential to do what they want. I want them to focus on their abilities not their disabilities. I want to open doors, wherever they may be.”

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Megan McCormick, who has Down syndrome and will graduate Friday with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from the University of Kentucky, posed for a portrait Tuesday at the UK Student Center. Photo by Matt Goins Matt Goins

Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes varying degrees of intellectual disability and developmental delays. Early intervention can help improve quality of life, according to doctors, and McCormick was lucky enough to be born to two of them. James and Malkanthie McCormick started Megan in gymnastics and cheerleading at an early age. She was the youngest of six children and “she lived around older siblings and they all expected her just to do what they did,” her mother said.

At some point in McCormick’s childhood, her mother said, she loved basketball but recognized she would never excel in it. Her parents told her she should start swimming as a lifelong exercise routine. She agreed and became a swimmer, excelling in breast stroke. In 2007, she competed in the Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai, China.

Megan McCormick graduated with honors from Tate’s Creek High School and then headed to BCTC. Her only help at school, Malkanthie McCormick said, was her individualized education plan, which included more time on tests and an academic coach to make sure she kept up with the material.

She decided to attend UK because a four-year degree would be another step toward full-time employment. At UK, she changed her major from biology to liberal studies because she liked courses such as psychology and child psychology so much. She attended only part-time in order to not interfere with her work at Mill Creek or her work with kids at the Down Syndrome Association of Central Kentucky.

“She is such a hard worker,” said Mill Creek Principal Greg Ross. “She has a desire to do a great job all the time, she’s constantly seeking out feedback and reflection, wants to know what she can do better. The students love Miss Megan.”

Megan McCormick lives in an apartment below her parents’ house; next up is learning to drive on her own. Then she’ll seek a full-time job, hopefully at Mill Creek, but somewhere.

Malkanthie McCormick said her daughter has been lucky to have supportive parents and an employer willing to take the special education that society pays for and turn it into jobs for those kids.

‘It requires a whole bunch of people to believe in these kids,” she said. “I am hoping that Megan opens these doors, that her achievements will make us all reconsider what is possible for other young people with disabilities.”

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The student center display flashed Megan McCormick, who has Down syndrome and will graduate Friday with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from the University of Kentucky, posed for a portrait Tuesday at the UK Student Center. Photo by Matt Goins Matt Goins

UK Graduation Schedule

May 3 at 10 a.m. - Rupp Arena

College of Agriculture, Food & Environment, College of Communication & Information, Martin School of Public Policy & Administration, Patterson School of Diplomacy & International Commerce, College of Public Health

2 p.m. - Rupp Arena

Gatton College of Business & Economics, College of Fine Arts, College of Health Sciences, College of Nursing, College of Pharmacy

4 p.m. - Singletary Center for the Arts

College of Law

7 p.m. - Singletary Center for the Arts

College of Pharmacy

May 5 at 10 a.m. - Rupp Arena

College of Arts & Sciences, College of Design, College of Social Work

2 p.m. - Rupp Arena

College of Education, College of Engineering, College of Medicine - Basic Science Programs

May 11 at 11 a.m. - Singletary Center for the Arts

College of Medicine

6 p.m. - Singletary Center for the Arts

College of Dentistry

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