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About Utah: Aggies Elevated: welcome to college, everyone

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Academic pioneers: these eight students have been chosen to inaugurate the Aggies Elevated program at Utah State University. Standing, left to right: Troy Shumway, Riley Cochran, Amity Jex, Natalie Allen. Bottom row: Mikaela Stewart, Sarah Bullen, Taylor

Academic pioneers: these eight students have been chosen to inaugurate the Aggies Elevated program at Utah State University. Standing, left to right: Troy Shumway, Riley Cochran, Amity Jex, Natalie Allen. Bottom row: Mikaela Stewart, Sarah Bullen, Taylor Henrie, Jenna Moser.

Sue Reeves, 2014 Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. Permission g

LOGAN — At various intervals — depending on how astute they were in avoiding scheduling early classes — some 3,900 first-time students will be invading the campus here at Utah State University this morning when the school opens its doors for the 126th straight school year.

Among them will be eight kids — Sarah, Taylor, Troy, Riley, Amity, Natalie, Mikaela and Jenna — representing a brand-new class of students.

They are the first selectees to enroll in a new program called Aggies Elevated.

Officially they are classified as intellectually disabled. Some have Down syndrome, others have forms of autism, others have varying brain disorders. They are not ordinary; they are extraordinary.

Aggies Elevated is a new approach to an old problem: how to help transition such people into society?

For decades, the answer was "don’t even try." It wasn’t that long ago that kids with Down syndrome, for example, were routinely institutionalized. Fortunately, that has phased into state-mandated “special ed” help that now extends through high school and beyond.

But ordinary college? That’s been essentially out of reach?

Until today.

Aggies Elevated (aggieselevated.com) is the first such program to be implemented in the state of Utah, and one of only a few in the entire country. It is modeled after a pioneering effort at UCLA called Pathways that began in 2006 and has proven effective in integrating intellectually challenged kids into the general college population and thereby greatly increasing their capacity and ability to transition into regular society.

For the past year, Aggie administrators and professors have intensely studied the UCLA system to the point they feel ready to model it in Logan.

But to fully appreciate the roots of Aggies Elevated, you have to peel back a layer until you get to Jonathan and Julie Bullen and Kim and Linda Henrie — two sets of parents motivated by one desire: to let their daughters have the same college experience they got to have.

They want them to not just attend classes, but to also get to live away from home on their own, to handle their own money, live with roommates who stay up late playing their weird music turned up loud and drink all your milk, make friends that last a lifetime, pull all-nighters, stroll the campus at sunset, walk over to the stadium for a football game, get to know their professors, and gain the kind of confidence that can only be gained from doing it oneself.

In short, they want them to get the education you got while getting your education.

For years, the Bullens and Henries fretted over their daughters missing out on a true college experience. Sarah Bullen and Taylor Henrie are each the youngest in their families. Each watched older brothers — Sarah has three, Taylor has four — go off to college. But what about them?

Coincidentally, both the Bullens and the Henries had independently looked at and admired the UCLA program. They wished Utah had something similar. The Henries lobbied the University of Utah to start its own version of Pathways but for bureaucratic reasons it never happened.

Then, in 2012, another coincidence. The Bullens moved to Park City, Utah, where they met and became friends with … the Henries.

Over dinner one night they found themselves comparing notes.

They pooled their knowledge, their resources and their determination. Another Park City couple, David and Hanne Duke, heard about what was going on and joined their ranks. Jonathan called some people he knew at Utah State — his and Julie’s alma mater. A meeting was arranged last fall in Salt Lake. Eric Latham, the executive director of UCLA’s Pathways program, flew in from Los Angeles.

Long, involved, intensive, emotional story short, Aggies Elevated got approved for the fall of 2014.

A thorough interview process selected the eight students who are inaugurating the program. There was just one entrance criterion: Both the parents and the student had to desire the opportunity.

The Aggies Elevated students are housed in the LLC (Living and Learning Center), traditional home to Utah State freshmen ideally located next to the Taggart Student Center. They paid their tuition just like everyone else, they lugged their bags — and favorite stuffed animals — into their rooms just like everyone else, and they rolled their eyes at their cry-baby mothers who couldn’t bear to leave them just like everyone else.

Sarah and Taylor are rooming together in a pod with six other freshmen girls, where they’ll share bathrooms, the kitchen, the common area and the TV.

Mentors, counselors and special advisers will help the Aggies Elevated kids negotiate all the barriers college presents, especially in the all-important first semester.

If all goes well, in two years they will emerge with a completion certificate and the kind of life skills that will better help them forge their own independent lives and careers.

There are no guarantees for them, just as there are no guarantees for anybody else starting out today.

Just opportunities.

At her placement interview, when asked what she was looking for as a college student, Taylor Henrie said, “I like to be challenged.”

You got it Taylor. And watch out for that roommate who likes to drink all your milk.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com