SPRINGFIELD — On a brilliant and blustery October morning, American International College student Aidan O’Donoghue was enjoying a quintessential freshman experience. In the dining commons, he gobbled down a salad, a glass of chocolate milk, and two cookies. He made a new friend, a fellow freshman, and invited him to play Ping-Pong.
Not long ago, the simple pleasures of campus life would have been out of reach for O’Donoghue, 19, because he has Down syndrome. He might have remained at Northampton High School until he turned 22, when public schools stop educating students with disabilities, or enrolled in a vocational program with other people with developmental delays.
But through the College Steps program, in its second year at AIC, O’Donoghue is one of 10 students with intellectual disabilities who attend the four-year private liberal arts college. He does not live on campus, but is ferried there every day on a van — expenses are covered by the Northampton school system.
On campus, he’s always with other students, peer mentors for whom this is a college job. For his first semester, he takes one academic class, is tutored in reading, receives speech therapy, and participates in group lessons that teach self-advocacy, daily living, and vocational skills.
AIC is one of a growing number of colleges across the country that integrate students with intellectual disabilities into campus life. For these students, college offers education, an age-appropriate peer group, and is a step towards greater independence.
“We want this to be meaningful and purposeful, and more than just a cutesy college experience,” said Rachael Hougen, regional director for College Steps, which also runs programs in Vermont, Connecticut, and Virginia.
College officials see such programs as part of their educational mission and in keeping with their quest for a diverse student body. AIC President Vincent Maniaci said he believes peer mentors “get an understanding of how they can make a difference in somebody’s life. That’s not a small thing.”
Debra Hart, director of education and transition for the Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass Boston, believes it’s wrong to keep students, whatever their disabilities, in high school into their 20s.
“It’s a substantially separate grouping, and we know that’s not good practice because they have no role models,” she said. “The aspects of higher education that are beneficial to the general population are equally beneficial to people with intellectual disabilities.’’
UMass Boston offers a similar program, called Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment, or ICE. The ICE program is also offered at about a dozen state institutions, including the state’s flagship campus in Amherst, Westfield, Bridgewater, and Framingham state universities, and Holyoke and Roxbury community colleges.
For O’Donoghue, going on to college seemed a natural next step. His parents, Phil O’Donoghue and Valle Dwight, had been strong advocates for their son throughout his public schooling, so that by the time he reached high school, their efforts and his gregarious nature ensured these would be happy years.
He took classes, was elected sophomore class vice president and performed in plays (including “Waiting for Godot”) and poetry slams. He was manager for the soccer and baseball teams, and wrestled. He attended prom with a date and participated in graduation last year.
To a degree, O’Donoghue grew up unaware of the roadblocks his disability placed before him. His encouraging family and natural optimism left him feeling he could do what he wanted.
“He has a level of expectation that he does what everyone else does,” said his father.
Dwight says that when she informed her son when he was 16 that he couldn’t get his driver’s license, he was surprised.
“I told him, ‘I’m sorry, Aidan, you can’t drive because you have Down syndrome,’ ” she said. “That was a hard conversation.”
College was a different story. Around the time he was in eighth grade, Dwight said, she began to see college might be an option for her son.
“I didn’t know if he’d want to go to college, but it turned out he very much wanted to go,’’ she said.
Dwight wants O’Donoghue prepared to live as fulfilling a life as her older son, Tim, a teacher in California, who graduated last year from Earlham College in Indiana.
“I’m hoping he stays super engaged in life,” she said.
At AIC this semester, O’Donoghue is taking a class in digital storytelling. Because he’s interested in food service, he’s got a campus job in the dining commons.
O’Donoghue also works at a Friendly’s restaurant near his home, where any difficulty in understanding his sometimes garbled and rushed speech pattern is eased by the clarity of his hand gestures.
Recently, dressed neatly in blue pants, apron, matching polo shirt and “Aidan” name tag, O’Donoghue welcomed a family.
With a sweep of his hand, he said, “We’ve got a big booth for four of you.” After taking drink orders — water, iced tea and lemonade — he exclaimed, “Okedoke! I like lemonade too!”
As with most freshmen, college life is an adjustment for O’Donoghue. Some days, he cried because he missed high school — and there was a time he was suspended for a day after he walked away from a mentor.
But he returned to campus the next day in typical good spirits, announcing after climbing off the van, “I’m happy to be here!”
Later, O’Donoghue played Ping-Pong in the game room with mentor Jasmine James, 22. When she lamented her lack of skill, O’Donoghue offered encouragement and showed her how to serve. She tried again.
“You got it, Jasmine!” he said.
Soon, Ben Jackson, from Tampa, whom O’Donoghue had met at the dining commons, arrived to play. “Here’s Ben,” O’Donoghue said.
Jackson grabbed a paddle and took a spot opposite his new friend. “Yeah, let’s do this,” he said.
Laurie Loisel can be reached at email@example.com