LEXINGTON, Ky. — 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 paraeducator at Mill Creek Elementary, the same elementary school she attended.

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This month, she reached 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 the University of Kentucky, although complete records have not been kept.

And yet to Megan McCormick, 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.”

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 Megan 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 Megan 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 Bluegrass Community and Technical College. 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 the University of Kentucky because a four-year degree would be another step toward full-time employment. At the University of Kentucky, 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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