Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

Sunday, August 13, 2017 1:00 am

Girl fulfills her college dream

George Mason accepts girl with Down syndrome

EMMA KATE FITTES | Indianapolis Star

ZIONSVILLE – She was sitting in the backseat of the family car with her two sisters when AnnCatherine Heigl was first told she wouldn't go to college.

There were a lot of tears.

The Heigl family was driving back to Zionsville after a college visit for AnnCatherine's older sister, Lillie. Their mother, Laura, turned around in the passenger seat when AnnCatherine started listing the schools she'd like to go to.

Ball State, maybe Butler, she said, naming places her friends went. Places her three siblings – older brother, Tim; older sister, Lillie; and little sister, Mari – had talked about.

Brokenhearted, Laura told AnnCatherine she couldn't go to any of those schools because she didn't have the grades. AnnCatherine has Down syndrome, a congenital disorder caused by a chromosome defect that causes intellectual impairment and physical abnormalities.

Laura was crying, too.

“We have really, through the course of her life, encouraged her to do everything she can do and try things, but you are not parenting well to tell your child they can do something that they're never going to do,” she said. “It's one thing when they're 5 and you say, 'You can be a fireman' or 'Yeah, you can play for the Colts.' It's a different thing at this stage in life.”

And then, through tears, AnnCatherine asked the one question that inspired her parents to spend the next two years hunting down every program available: “Are you telling me there is no place in the country for me to go to college?”

Until that day in the car, AnnCatherine had a typical high school experience.

She was a cheerleader and played tennis. She went camp in the summers and had a tight group of friends that included her sister Mari. When she got upset at her older sister, Lillie, she'd dump all Lillie's belongings from their shared bedroom into the hallway.

She was even nominated homecoming princess her freshman year.

Getting AnnCatherine into college started with a spreadsheet. Her father, John, a human resources professional for Eli Lilly, made a list of 200 schools with programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities after scouring websites and scholarship lists.

They narrowed it down from there. AnnCatherine wanted to go for four years and live on campus, which took many day programs out of the running. She applied to five last fall including George Mason University's LIFE program in Fairfax, Virginia.

At George Mason, the LIFE program receives from 60 to 70 applications each year, said director Heidi Graff. This year they accepted 16 students, only four from out of state.

The Heigls considered George Mason a “stretch.” In February, AnnCatherine was dropped off at 9 a.m. for her interview and picked up at 3:30 p.m. Laura waited nervously in a nearby eatery.

“It's hard for a parent to send a child away. Period,” Laura said. “This is at a whole different level. ... This wasn't our plan. This is her plan. And we feel like our job as parents is to support her plan, just like we did for her big brother and big sister.”

Work pays off

Laura saw the email from George Mason first, with the word “acceptance” in the subject line. She's a Realtor and was in the middle of showing houses. Instead, she sat in her car, crying, while her client patiently waited with her.

It was a moment of relief. There is a place for AnnCatherine.

“As much as anything it's an affirmation of her hard work, and the hard work of our teachers, coaches, therapists and the community,” Laura said.

She then called a family meeting for 5 p.m., when they would show AnnCatherine her acceptance email. It was weird, Mari said, because they never have family meetings. She was worried something was wrong.

Sitting on the couch surrounded by family – including her two older siblings away at university joining via FaceTime – AnnCatherine read the email. In the video, it's a little difficult to understand what she's saying. But physically, it's pretty clear.

A smile flashes across her face between sentences. She gives her hands a little clap. Her older sister Lillie is audibly crying.

“I'm going there,” she says, pointing to the iPad before squeezing her eyes shut in a massive grin.

She's the first person from Indiana to be accepted to George Mason's LIFE program, which started in 2002. It now has 54 students and 100 support staff members, according to its website.