'Fierce Father' Goes Viral for Sweet Note About Daughter with Down Syndrome Graduating College

Joelle Goldstein

For Jay Handlin, finding the words to describe how proud he is of his daughter, Rachel, is nearly impossible.

Last Friday, Jay announced on Twitter that Rachel, 24, had earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Photography & Media from California Institute of the Arts.

While the moment is typically special for all parents, Jay, 61, said he had an even bigger reason as to why he was feeling immense pride: his daughter has Down syndrome.

"This is a very rough, ballpark calculation, but out of all the people with Down syndrome in the world, those who’ve earned a regular college degree are literally about one in a million. That’s not because they’re the only ones who could do it. They’re the ones whose families refused to let their children’s futures be denied, who fought unfair odds, social biases, low expectations and systems stacked against them, and somehow managed to win," Jay tells PEOPLE.

Rachel Handlin

"They’re the ones who worked unimaginably hard, going to school and then going home to go to school all over again. They’re the tiny few who were given the opportunities everybody deserves, who got the support they needed, and who labored relentlessly to prevail," he continues. "For my daughter to do all that? Let along from a world-class creative institute like CalArts?  'Proud' doesn’t begin to describe it."

Courtesy Jay Handlin Rachel Handlin

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According to Jay, Rachel was "exposed to great art" from a very young age after he and his wife Laura, 62, brought her to museums during family vacations to Paris.

"The first time we took her to Musée d’Orsay, Laura was carrying Rachel when we entered the Van Gogh gallery and it was like an electric charge went through Rachel’s body," he recalls. "She had an instant, strong, positive physical reaction to the art."

It wasn't until ninth grade that Rachel was given a Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot digital camera for her birthday that she really began to hone in on the craft. Later, she started taking photography classes in high school to build up her portfolio for college.

"It was clear to us that there was something unique about Rachel’s point of view," Jay says of his daughter's snapshots. "The images were really striking. These were not the kinds of photos most people would take."

As she approached the end of high school, Rachel knew she wanted to continue her studies at an art school and ultimately decided on CalArts — becoming the first student with Down syndrome to be enrolled at the university.

Courtesy Jay Handlin Rachel Handlin

"Besides the fact that everybody at CalArts is awesomely talented, one of the best things is that the community is comprised of people who didn’t fit the mold elsewhere — and I say that with complete love," Jay notes.  "Everyone there is valued for their uniqueness. It was ideal for Rachel to be someplace where the only 'normal' is difference."

In a statement obtained by PEOPLE,  the President of CalArts, Ravi Rajan added of Rachel: "We are fortunate to have Rachel as a member of our Community of Artists here at CalArts... CalArts has never used test scores or conventional measures of college readiness or assessment, like grades. We believe that ability is evenly distributed in the population and comes in many forms — it's opportunity that isn’t. It’s not a perfect place, but it never stops trying to be better. Rachel makes us better."

Over the last five years, Rachel has lived in an apartment off-campus with her mom so she "could focus on her work, without simultaneously having to deal with living independently," Jay says.

And though she has faced a number of challenges along the way, Jay notes that Rachel never let it stop her from achieving success.

Courtesy Jay Handlin Rachel Handlin

"Rachel has always been very resilient," he says. "[She] is a serious artist who has gotten where she is by virtue of her innate talents, unique vision, unimaginable hard work and perseverance, aided by a great team of allies who've helped her prevail over a lot of systemic obstacles and societal biases."

Those five years of "hard work and perseverance" finally came to a culmination on May 15 when Rachel earned her BFA.

In his tweet on that memorable day, Jay — who describes himself in his Twitter bio as a "fierce father" and "disability/inclusion zealot" — wrote that he was "officially the proudest father on the planet."

His message was met with praise by thousands of users, who congratulated him and Rachel and shared similar anecdotes about their loved ones with Down syndrome.

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Those positive responses are ultimately what Jay and Laura hoped people would take away from their daughter's story, which the father says has taught him to "never be limited by anybody else’s expectations and assumptions."

"We’d like everybody who has Down syndrome, or who has a child or a grandchild or a friend with Down syndrome, or who’s gotten a prenatal diagnosis, to understand what is possible," he explains. "To understand that folks with Down syndrome are full-fledged people with an incredible range of abilities and potential — interesting, smart, creative, talented, funny, complex, surprising, valuable people."

"That, given the opportunities, they can and will accomplish extraordinary things," Jay adds. "That they deserve to be full-blown members of our society, with careers, and families, and everything else that everybody else deserves and gets."