Man with Down syndrome fulfills dream of graduating from Clemson

Overcoming odds
Overcoming odds 02:50

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- For 20 years, Danny Holcombe and his wife Sue kept a secret from their son. They never told Rion, who has Down syndrome, that there were some things in life he would never be able to do.

Which is why, when some of Rion's friends left for college, he just figured he would go too. His parents say he even picked the college.

Rion Holcombe CBS News

"He just started telling people he was going to go to Clemson," says Sue. When asked if they braced him for disappointment, Danny said they tried to explain the situation.

Although the Holcombes didn't know it at the time, Rion's dream wasn't entirely out of the question. Clemson does have a program for people with intellectual disabilities, but it's highly competitive. Every year more than one hundred people apply for less than ten openings.

Still, since Rion wasn't getting the hint, they let him apply. And when the admissions letter arrived, they recorded it on home video.

"We're just waiting to see, how he does react when it hits him?" Danny said. "And he says, 'I got accepted!' And I think those words mean an awful lot. It was just total, absolute joy."

Rion Holcombe opens his acceptance letter. CBS News

We were there a couple years ago when he packed up for Clemson.

The two-year program teaches job skills and how to live independently. Which I could tell his mother especially would appreciate.

At the time, Rion knew college would be challenging. "Oh, yea, it's very challenging, yes," he said. But he was up for it.

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Rion got not one, but two jobs after graduating from the program. Holcombe Family

Twenty years ago there was no room on a college campus for someone like Rion. But today more than 200 universities across the country offer some kind of program like this.

And Rion, for one, couldn't have been more grateful for the opportunity. He took instantly to college life, proving that Down syndrome can be overcome.

Last spring, Rion graduated from the Clemson program. He applied for twenty jobs and got two -- one with an occupational therapist, and the other at a water slide. He also does his own cooking and laundry, and is pretty much self-reliant.

Now if we can just get typical kids to do the same.

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  • Steve Hartman
    Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.