Earning a bachelor’s degree is far from easy, especially for people with special needs. Despite having down syndrome, AnnaRose Rubright soldiered on and proved that even with her condition, she could accomplish her goals.
In early May, the 24-year-old finally earned the fruit of her hard work. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in radio, television, and film at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. With that, AnnaRose made history as the first student with down syndrome to receive a diploma from the institute.
The event was held over Zoom because of COVID-19 threats. Speakers during the event included Rowan’s president, Dr. Ali Houshmand, and New Jersey State Senator Steve Sweeney. While graduation ceremonies are usually joyous occasions, it was especially poignant for AnnaRose. She said it “very emotional” and a “bit overwhelming” for her. Most of her family members also shed a few tears during the virtual affair.
AnnaRose’s family witnessed firsthand how she tirelessly worked to pursue her education. In 2014, she graduated from Shawnee high school, and in 2017, she earned her associate’s degree from Rowan College, a community college partnered with Rowan University. She then transferred to the university shortly after that.
AnnaRose’s journey to earning her bachelor’s degree came with challenges, especially for a student like her with down syndrome.
“During the school term, there is not a lot of time for free activity,” Lin Rubright, AnnaRose’s mother, said. “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.”
Rowan University had 2,400 students with special needs enrolled during the last academic year, including AnnaRose. According to John Woodruff, the director for the academic success center and disability resources at the university, students like AnnaRose are held to the same standard as every other student on the campus.
“None of the courses for AnnaRose or other students with disabilities are ‘watered down.’ The standards are not lower,” he said. “They have the same expectations to complete and pass the course.”
The university has implemented programs dedicated to helping students with special needs meet their academic requirements. Some of those include tutoring and pairing them with graduate students. They assist with time management and organizational skills, something that AnnaRose took advantage of during her time at the university.
AnnaRose’s family made sure she didn’t feel any pressure while she was studying and even told her to stop at one point.
“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 said. “But she just wouldn’t quit.”
AnnaRose did the opposite; she sought even more opportunities to improve herself. During her time at Rowan, she was inducted into the Delta Alpha Pi, a national honor society for students with special needs; she spoke to a panel at the United Nations; she pushed for disability rights with legislators in Washington D.C. and Trenton; she produced several videos for the National Down Syndrome Society.
Through her lengthy list of experiences, AnnaRose discovered her passion for online media, documentary, podcasts, and storytelling. She hopes to one day work in radio, and her family is working with her to start their own production company.
AnnaRose plans to use the company as a platform to share stories relevant to people with special needs.
As she begins the next chapter of her story, AnnaRose has advice for students with special needs hoping to earn a bachelor’s degree like her.
“Advocate for yourself and be heard in the real world,” she said.
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