Dispatches from Home: An appreciation for a history-making member of the Class of 2020

Medford's AnnaRose Rubright, an activist, ambassador, and soon-to-be documentary filmmaker, aced her final semester at Rowan as its first graduate with Down syndrome

AnnaRose Rubright of Medford celebrated obtaining her bachelor’s degree from Rowan University earlier this month. Rubright, the school’s first graduate with Down syndrome, aced her final semester with A’s in all four of her classes, despite challenges with classes moving online mid-semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo provided)

Memorial Day weekend is nearly here and depending on where you or your kids are enrolled, school’s out for summer.

The end of the school year is especially worthy of celebration in 2020. It’s been more than two months since the rug otherwise known as COVID-19 was pulled out from underneath us, leaving everyone unsure where to put their feet as they returned to the ground.

Teachers should be commended. Students should be celebrated. And parents who were asked to perform the juggling act of at-home, online learning while also handling the challenges of doing their own jobs at home, should be considered for sainthood, especially those single dads and moms out there with multiple kids under age 8. Or for those with six daughters between 15 and 24.

Medford’s Lin Rubright, a full-time student at Rowan University, falls into the latter category.

“In addition to being a full-time student, I work part-time for the National Down Syndrome Society and I’m a mom to six daughters who are all at home right now quarantined with us,” said Rubright, who is working on a double major in sociology and psychology. “So trying to be a full-time student, with now additional work for my statistics class, and managing a household of eight people, a dog, five chickens, and a cat, when you’re only allowed to get two packets of chicken at the grocery store, that became a bit of a challenge. But we got through it.”

One of her six daughters is AnnaRose Rubright, a student in my News Reporting I class at Rowan University this spring. An outgoing and attentive young woman who sat in the first row and always made a point to say hello, Rubright became the first student with Down syndrome in Rowan history to graduate.

“I always try to set an example for my youngest sister, Rachel, so she knows she can do the same things that I’ve been doing,” AnnaRose said of Rachel, who also has Down syndrome and will be a freshman at Shawnee High School in the fall.

AnnaRose Rubright made history earlier this month when she became the first Rowan University graduate with Down syndrome. But the diligent student is a lot more than that: She’s also an activist and storyteller. (Photo provided)

Rachel Rubright has a heck of a role model in her older sister, because the first thing you should probably know about AnnaRose Rubright isn’t her Down syndrome but her endless abilities. 

She once starred in a PSA video with actress Olivia Wilde to commemorate World Down Syndrome Day. Four years ago, she spoke to a panel at the United Nations. She’s also gone to Washington and Trenton to lobby legislators for disability rights. Her face appears on posters and billboards globally for her efforts as an advocate and ambassador.

I had no idea. I knew I had a star student in my class but didn’t realize she was a legitimate star, with a resume that had to be the most accomplished among Rowan’s class of 2020.

Rubright is eager to launch her own production company and begin making documentaries and podcasts, including a story on Law syndrome, the antiquated practice of companies underpaying employees with disabilities. She earned a bachelor of arts in radio, television & film and a minor in journalism earlier this month. 

Her first journalism teacher, who was coincidentally my first newspaper boss back in 2002, remembered her fondly.

“I loved having her in class,” said Phil Anastasia, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and longtime sportswriter who teaches a sports writing class at Rowan. “She was studious, engaged, diligent and a terrific writer. She’s going to do great things.”

Sometimes when I think of my job at Rowan, essentially teaching a Journalism 101-type course that is the first news writing class for many college students, I remember the words of another longtime Philadelphia-area sportswriter.

“Although others might disagree, teaching someone to write is like teaching them to have blue eyes,” recently retired Inquirer columnist Bob Ford once wrote. “They either have blue eyes or they don’t.”

In working at Rowan for the last year and a half, I have come to agree with Ford to some extent; writing is an innate skill, though with work and repetition, writers can improve their craft.

Fittingly, AnnaRose Rubright has blue eyes.

AnnaRose Rubright and her family take part in Rowan University’s virtual graduation ceremony earlier this month. (Photo provided)

It was fairly clear, after the first couple of weeks of class this winter, that her assignments would be among the easier ones to grade because she had the ability to write well. She finished with the second-highest final grade in my class of 17 students.

Her mother is proud, surely, but not surprised. AnnaRose always wanted to try the more challenging classes at Shawnee, and even going back to the days when she first learned to walk, was more interested in observing and listening to people than running around causing havoc, showing off skills that should serve her well in producing documentaries.

But for Rubright to ace her way through the spring semester, all A’s in four classes, amid a global pandemic, is nothing short of remarkable.

“When she’s in (school), there’s no TV watching, no going out with friends — there’s nothing outside of school work when it’s school time,” Lin Rubright said of her oldest daughter. “During those 15 weeks, it’s a big commitment for her. She can’t do all of those other things. Because what might take you and I 15 minutes to read takes Anna an hour to three hours to read, depending on the content. So when they say you have to do three hours of every credit hour of school that you take, and compound that to another times three for her disability, the slow processing speeds and lack of memory, and the fact that she has to write more things down, you’re talking about a really serious commitment. And during a global pandemic.”

Lin Rubright, who battled breast cancer a year ago, said with Down syndrome, both her oldest and youngest daughters are more at risk during a pandemic, too. Not that she would know that in watching her fearless daughter churn through her schoolwork this spring.

“Anna has this confidence and nerves of steel,” her mother said. “I didn’t do as well this semester; I got two A’s and two B’s. And she’ll remind me all the time. But she also encourages me, if I’m worried about a paper or a test, ‘Mom you’ll do fine,’ or ‘Mom, you just have to sit down and focus.’ So it’s really great. It’s fed my soul.”

It’s fed mine, too. And while I’m proud AnnaRose is off and running onto bigger and better things, the arrival of summer and the end of the school year feels a little bittersweet, too.

AnnaRose Rubright poses with her parents, Lin and Michael, after being inducted into the Delta Alpha Pi Honor Society. Rubright, the oldest of six Rubright daughters, plans on using her degree to continue her advocacy for Down syndrome through documentaries and podcasts. (Photo provided)

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Dispatches from Home is a new weekly column from Sun Newspapers. The smart and safe COVID-19 isolations have surely left us all a little stir crazy. Each week, Ryan Lawrence will offer some ideas to keep you busy, entertained — sometime both — or draw on personal experiences of surviving and celebrating life during a pandemic.