Texas A&M’s Aggie ACHIEVE Program Is Changing the Game
Courtney Osburn comes from a dyed-in-the-maroon-wool Aggie family—her parents met at a Texas A&M bonfire. Her dad, a granddad and great-granddad were in the Corps of Cadets. She’s been attending football games for as long as she can remember.
“Growing up, I had this gut feeling: You will be here someday,” she shares.
Courtney, 27, has cerebral palsy, and sometimes it takes her awhile to push the right words out. Still, the Allen High School graduate felt confident that College Station would eventually be her home. “I grew up on the Aggie code of honor, and I hate the words ‘I can’t’ because I will prove to you I can.”
As the years passed, her mom, Beca Osburn, was less sure. She recalls a conversation from the December before last: “We were sitting there talking, and she goes, ‘Mom, I want to go to A&M,’ and I thought, Oh my god, honey, I don’t know if we can make this one happen.”
Unbeknownst to them, A&M was preparing to launch Aggie ACHIEVE, a certificate program tailor-made for young adults like Courtney.
“A month later is when I got a call about the program,” Beca explains, “and I just got chills, and that’s when I knew. I just knew.”
Her daughter opened that coveted acceptance envelope last spring. I asked Courtney what the moment felt like, and there was a reverent silence. “Awesome,” she said finally.
Though other Texas colleges have post-secondary options for students with intellectual disabilities, these programs don’t offer the holistic college experience—Fish Camp, dorm life, Midnight Yell and the like.
Aggie ACHIEVE is “as much as possible meant to mirror the college experience for a typical student,” explains Carly Gilson, the program’s faculty director. Each semester, Courtney and her peers enroll in selected inclusive courses on a pass/fail basis, meaning they’re surrounded by other Aggies, though the assignments might look different—PowerPoints and podcasts instead of research papers, for instance.
“It’s really getting creative and trying to meet the needs of our students, but also presenting rigorous challenges,” Gilson says.
Student partners volunteer an hour or two each week to help Aggie ACHIEVE students study, cook and organize their time, or just hang out and have dinner.
The ultimate goal: equip students to thrive independently and contribute to the community through inclusive employment. To that end, job coaches will help first- and second-years complete on-campus internships, while third- and fourth-years will be connected with opportunities off campus that (ideally) align with their career aspirations.
After college, Courtney wants to be a sports trainer for the A&M football team … and ride the (planned) bullet train back to North Texas to embolden kids with similar dreams.
“Of course it’s going to be ups and downs, but it’s going to be the best time of your life,” Courtney says. “You just mature, and you get to find who you get to be in college.”
A Good Challenge
The program’s inclusivity is what really excites Gena Koster, executive director of special education for Keller Independent School District. “We work really hard in K–12 to expand our opportunities for inclusion, but after graduation, individuals with significant disabilities are faced with fewer opportunities for inclusion,” she laments.
Aggie ACHIEVE is the only four-year inclusive, residential program in Texas serving students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Koster has already had a family inquire about Aggie ACHIEVE for their daughter who’s in elementary school.
That’s not too early to be thinking about life after high school, Koster says. By the time your child hits the teen years, make note of available programs and their eligibility requirements; for Aggie ACHIEVE, these include third grade reading comprehension, basic math skills and a reliable method of communication (verbal or otherwise).
To gauge whether a program is the right fit, Koster suggests “looking at the rate that your student grows each year and then project that out”—e.g., what will their reading level be in high school? While giving your child something to strive toward can be beneficial, “you don’t want to set unrealistic goals and cause more frustration,” she says.
Don’t forget your child’s emotional state—even typical students combat anxiety and stress when leaving the nest for the first time. “An individual with an intellectual disability can have some of those feelings intensified,” Koster says, so factor in their social-emotional well-being as you consider programs far afield.
Then there’s the cost: Aggie ACHIEVE exceeds $10,000 per semester, plus $10,000 annually for room and board (numbers in line with similar programs). Gilson is applying for a federal designation that would allow students to access federal financial aid this fall, and she’s working on scholarships.
“Financially, it is a huge investment,” admits Beca Osburn, though she says the price tag is worth it; she’s already seeing the returns in Courtney. “Just her confidence, her advocating skills, her independence—in fact, they kind of have to pull her back sometimes because she wants so much independence,” Beca laughs.
Courtney confirms that she’s being stretched. “The program challenges you mentally,” she says. “But it’s a good challenge, like getting used to new courses and how to study, balancing your free time with your friends.”
In other words, the same trouble spots every college freshman has to navigate.
Learn more about Aggie Achieve and sign up for open house events at aggieachieve.tamu.edu.
The three-semester E4Texas program at the University of Texas at Austin prepares students to become personal care attendants; students also have the option to audit some regular UT courses. Housing is provided during the summer semester. disabilitystudies.utexas.edu/e4texas
Students in Lone Star College’s lifePATH program take exclusive foundational classes in communication, math, soft skills and more. After two years, students can stay in the program or take advantage of wraparound supports to pursue a regular degree in anything from accounting to wildlife biology. lonestar.edu
Four Tarrant County College campuses have transitional skills programs to prep students for work or college, including a program specifically for people on the autism spectrum. The campuses offer clubs and extracurriculars too. tccd.edu
To find other post-secondary programs for students with disabilities, start at thinkcollege.net, a database with search filters for program length, financial aid availability and more.
Photo courtesy of Heather Moses/College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University.