Aggies everywhere know there is something special about attending Texas A&M University. Bonds are formed and memories made that will last a lifetime and there is a special connection between former students that surpasses similar experiences at other schools.

The Aggie experience, however, has been unavailable to some Texans who surely could benefit from it: people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some people might believe there is no place at A&M for such Texans, but they would be wrong.

We are about to find out. This fall, Aggie ACHIEVE -- the first inclusive four-year postsecondary education program in the state -- will welcome its first four participants. ACHIEVE stands for Academic Courses in Higher Inclusive Education and Vocational Experiences.

Carly Gilson, an assistant professor of special education at A&M and developer of the program, said, "Aggie ACHIEVE will provide an inclusive and immersive college education for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and equip them for employment in the community."

While the program won't lead to a typical A&M degree, participants in ACHIEVE will share much with other students on campus. A group of students called Aggie ACHIEVEmates has formed to mentor participants in the program one-on-one in four key areas, according to a press release:

• Peer mentors assist students with academic coursework and encourage good study habits.

• Lunch partners focus on social skills and healthy eating goals.

• Fitness friends enroll in Physical Education Activity Program -- PEAP -- courses or engage in workouts to encourage safe exercise habits.

• Daily planners focus on organizational skills, self-advocacy, money management and ensuring students meet all expectations of the program.

During the first two years in the program, participants become familiar with the full range of college experiences, with an emphasis on living independently, career awareness and self-determination. During this phase, the participants will audit credit courses, giving them important classroom experience.

Gilson said, "We are focused on the importance of being an inclusive and immersive program. We have a campus community of 60,000 students and we want to make sure that the students in Aggie ACHIEVE are going to be integrated fully into that campus community."

In the final two years, the participants will focus on developing their chosen career, participating in internships on and off the A&M campus.

Each year, participating students and their families will meet with A&M faculty and staff to set goals for the year.

Participants will live on campus so they can be fully immerse in student life and also will participate in campus clubs and organizations.

Gilson said, "We are focused on the importance of being an inclusive and immersive program. We have a campus community of 60,000 students and we want to make sure that the students in Aggie ACHIEVE are going to be integrated fully into that campus community."

The four years most assuredly will benefit the participants in so many ways, but it also will give other Aggies perhaps their first chance ever to interact in many ways with peers with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The world will be a better place because of this interaction.

Gilson said, "We want this to be something that, in addition to the direct population it serves, also provides leadership and training opportunities for our current students."

The ACHIEVErs won't earn a typical Aggie diploma. Rather, they will earn a certificate indicating their participation in this ground-breaking program. More important, they will be ready for a lifetime career and the ability to live on their own and support themselves.

Aggie ACHIEVE is designed to fill a need that has gone unfilled for far too long. It isn't at all surprising that this marvelous initiative started at Texas A&M, which is on the cutting edge in so many areas.

We hope the success of Aggie ACHIEVE will show other universities how to be more inclusive.

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