Jay Handlin couldn’t contain his joy when his daughter, Rachel, officially became a college graduate.
While this occasion is a particularly special moment for all parents, there’s an even bigger reason why Jay is feeling extra proud: Rachel has Down syndrome.
Last week, the proud father took to Twitter to announce that the 24-year-old had just earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Photography & Media from California Institute of the Arts.
“This is my daughter, Rachel Handlin. Tonight, she earned her full Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Photography & Media from the prestigious California Institute of the Arts, @CalArts.
Rachel has #Downsyndrome. I am officially the proudest father on the planet. Fight me,” he said.
In an interview with PEOPLE, Jay, 61, shared that out of all the people with Down syndrome in the world, those who are college graduates are about one in a million.
“That’s not because they’re the only ones who could do it. They’re the ones whose families refused to let their children’s futures be denied, who fought unfair odds, social biases, low expectations and systems stacked against them, and somehow managed to win,” he said.
Rachel was exposed to great art from a very young age after Jay and his wife, Laura, 62, introduced her to museums during their vacations in Paris.
The first time they took her to Musée d’Orsay, Laura was holding Rachel when they walked into the Van Gogh gallery. At that moment, it seemed like an “electric charge” went through the little child’s body.
“She had an instant, strong, positive physical reaction to the art,” he recalled.
In ninth-grade, the couple gifted Rachel with a Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot digital camera for her birthday. That’s when she really began to develop her creative skills.
She eventually started taking photography classes in high school to build up her portfolio for college.
Jay said there was something unique about Rachel’s snapshots, saying the images were really “striking” and “not the kind of photos people would take.”
As high school was coming to an end, Rachel was certain she wanted to continue her education at an art school. She ultimately chose CalArts and became the first student with Down syndrome to attend the university.
Over the last five years, Rachel lived in an apartment with her mom so she could focus on her craft without having to deal with the struggles of independent living.
Rachel also recently finished a ceramics independent study at CalArts and has been incorporating that medium with photography to generate unique effects.
She also participated in many extracurricular activities in college and founded the View Camera Club on campus, a group for photography majors. She also works as a bartender at weekly gallery shows.
Rachel has also participated in photography exhibitions both in the United States and abroad.
In fact, one of her most recent exhibits, titled Scooter Shots, is on display in a New York gallery. It features images of scooter side-view mirror reflections, which Rachel says shows her ability to “see things other people don’t see.”
This college graduate is truly unstoppable as she’s already planning to pursue a Master’s degree in Fine Arts.
Jay’s “proud dad” tweet got thousands of replies, mostly of congratulations, while other users shared similar stories of their loved ones with Down syndrome.
This kind of positive response is what Jay and Laura would like for people to take away from Rachel’s story.
“We’d like everybody who has Down syndrome, or who has a child or a grandchild or a friend with Down syndrome, or who’s gotten a prenatal diagnosis, to understand what is possible,” Jay explained.
“To understand that folks with Down syndrome are full-fledged people with an incredible range of abilities and potential — interesting, smart, creative, talented, funny, complex, surprising, valuable people.”
As a person with Down syndrome, Rachel faced many struggles; nevertheless, those hurdles didn’t stop her from achieving her goals.
This story just proves that anyone’s dreams can come true, as long as they’re dedicated and surrounded with people who support them in their endeavors!
Follow Rachel on Instagram to see some of her beautiful works.