No college graduates have ever been prouder.
No students ever worked harder.
Nobody a few years ago ever thought that Barbara “Basia” Oley, Kevin Rauppius and Sara Oxenfeld would ever do anything at a college graduation except clap for somebody else.
But at the start of Winthrop University’s commencement ceremony Saturday afternoon – before hundreds of students start their lives as teachers and engineers and nurses – the names of those three students will be called in that cavernous Winthrop Coliseum filled to the rafters with families.
Each will walk across the stage, to thunderous applause as other students cheer and a few of them cry.
Because – just like everybody else – Oley, Rauppius and Oxenfeld have lived in the dorms, taken classes, and tried their very best.
These three have developmental disabilities. They were not “supposed” to go to college.
They are Winthrop’s first Think College graduates.
“College,” said Oley, 21, of Fort Mill. “I went to college. And I did it.”
The certificates each will get are not traditional diplomas. The papers will say “certificate of completion and accomplishment.”
Think College is still in its infancy, an idea to integrate students with learning disabilities into college life that so many students and families take for granted. Eighteen students are involved in the two-year program, but these three are the first to finish.
“I did everything I could in college,” said Rauppius, 21, of Rock Hill. “Now I graduate.”
All three took computer classes, health and nutrition, and other classes aimed at making them as independent as possible in life. They had to do coursework, too. This is no giveaway.
Oley took metalsmithing, public speaking, kickboxing and several tough classes. Rauppius took every computer class he could and more. Oxenfeld excelled at everything thrown her way.
Oxenfeld, 23, of Fort Mill, put it this way: “I did everything. I did my best.”
Think College has traditional student mentors and peers who live with the participants in the dorms, go to classes with them, and are friends with them.
“Being with my friends, making friends, that was great,” Oley said.
Professors and graduate students run the program and have shaped something that the students and their parents say can be transformative – not just for these three, but for a generation of students with intellectual disabilities.
“This was a total college experience,” said Cheri Oxenfeld, Sara’s mother. “They had life skills classes, things that each of them will need for success. The experience was incredible.”
The parents hope that their children’s achievements will blaze a trail for more people with disabilities to continue on with life-based learning, with the end goal being independent, productive lives.
“We want this graduation to be the beginning, not the end,” Cheri Oxenfeld said. “Not just for our children, but others. This really works.”
The parents – Cheri and Bryan Oxenfeld, Judy and Rick Rauppius, and Teri and Gerry Oley – were part of their children’s lives but not allowed to be overbearing. The students lived in a dorm, went to class, ate in the cafeteria and were forced to be independent. Each had to intern at the computer lab and other places including the cafeteria and library.
Judy Rauppius said her son learned the skills that he will need to be able to not just function, but thrive, through the rest of his life.
“The goal is that these students become fully involved in society,” Judy Rauppius said. “For students like ours, that means inclusion. And they were included in everything.”
Kevin Rauppius, former prom king at Northwestern High School, is such a “Big Man on Campus” at Winthrop that he was constantly barraged with conversation and fun and laughter. Kevin will talk to anybody at any time. His smile and personality have no disability.
“This program has given our students the confidence to do anything they want in life,” said Teri Oley. “Each of them now is not afraid to try.”
And like all soon to be college graduates, these three have the same fears. Going out into the world, being independent, and the big one:
“Finding a job,” said Oley, who hopes to work in library science. “I love books – everything about them.”
Rauppius could end up in a career where his personality and warmth show through.
“I’m a little nervous,” he said. “I have to get a job now. I am looking forward to working with people.”
And Oxenfeld wants to find a career path involving what she loves most.
“I want to work with animals,” she said.
These three have their whole lives to worry about bills and jobs and debts and the things that every other college kid worries about. On Saturday, there will be only the incredible joy of having done their best.
Rauppius has to wear a tie for graduation and, like all guys, he doesn’t want to. The women are having hair and more done to look their best. Clothes are being chosen.
The day is huge for every graduate and every family.
Still, people will look back forever on the Winthrop Class of 2016 and see the three names of Barbara “Basia” Oley, Kevin Rauppius and Sara Oxenfeld at the head of the class.
The first graduates of Winthop’s Think College.
The French philosopher Rene Descartes once wrote something people remember: “I think, therefore I am.”
These three think.
Therefore, they sure are.
Want to learn more?
To read more about Withrop University’s Think College, go to winthrop.edu/thinkcollege, or call 803-323-3080.