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LIFE programs make college a reality for students with Down Syndrome

Living “life as normal” is something all families strive for.

Nicole Starkey’s daughter, Abby, has Down Syndrome, but she doesn’t let that hinder her. She goes to school, is a Girl Scout and according to Nicole, she doesn’t think of herself as being different.

“She knows that we are all unique, with individual needs and interests and those around her support her in those,” Starkey said. “It’s only a part of who she is.” 

At 10 years old, Abby is the middle child of three girls. She is an ambitious, curious child who is like many other 10-year-olds. She has, in the recent past, aspired to be a baker, a daycare worker and a camp counselor when she gets older. And her family encourages her to reach for whatever goals she might set for herself. 

That includes the possibility of going to college as a young adult. It’s convenient that right down the road, Clemson University offers the ClemsonLIFE program, which seeks to provide young men and women with Down Syndrome and other disabilities a collegiate experience and a better chance at independence in their adult lives. 

According to program manager Erica Walters, there are 40 students enrolled in ClemsonLIFE for the 2019-2020 academic year. They have a variety of intellectual differences including Down Syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. 

“Going to college for these students means that they are able to gain a new level of independence and participate in post-secondary educational opportunities,” Walters said. “This means they are able to participate in campus life and all the social opportunities that come along with being in college.”

Seeing the ClemsonLIFE students walking through town and working at local stores helps normalize Down Syndrome in the community, which is a benefit to Abby and other area children. That, along with community support, helps Abby thrive in everyday life.

Starkey said the local community and a strong internet community have provided their family with so many resources, mainly other families who have walked the path before them. They share their wisdom, and in turn, Starkey said they can share with those who are just starting off with a child who has a Down Syndrome diagnosis.

“We have the opportunity to learn from over 30 years of research how to include Abby in our everyday lives in a way that she thrives,” Starkey said.   

And thrive she does, with many friends, a loving family and the chance to see others like herself in her community. 

Abby doesn’t see herself as different because she has Down Syndrome. She sees herself as different in the way every child sees themselves as different – through her strawberry blond hair, her love of the Disney movie series “Descendants” and all the other things that make a 10-year-old unique in her own way.

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and programs like ClemsonLIFE bring that awareness on a community level. Clemson students see kids with different abilities as they go from class to class, and community members see them working at local stores or shopping alongside them at the grocery. Awareness brings acceptance, and that’s something we all strive for.

For more on Down Syndrome Awareness Month, visit, and for more on ClemsonLIFE, visit LIFE programs are available at several South Carolina colleges and universities and other schools across the country, including the University of South Carolina ( and Coastal Carolina University (