Wearing a hot pink sweater, cheetah print booties and a big smile, Rachel Mast has been described as “sparkly” by those close to her.
She’s fun-loving, outgoing and a young woman with many accomplishments. Most recently, Mast won the Laura Lee Self-Advocate Leadership award for her work raising awareness about Down syndrome.
Mast said being a self advocate means to “step up for yourself and not take no for an answer.”
As a disability advocate, Mast has appeared in documentaries raising awareness on Down syndrome. She is currently a representative of Bear POWER (Promoting Opportunities for Work, Education and Resilience) to Student Government Association and helped pass the Kansas Achieving a Better Life Experience Act.
The Kansas ABLE Act allows people with disabilities to create tax-free savings accounts for costs associated with disabilities. Mast says helping pass this act is her biggest accomplishment.
Mast was nominated for the Laura Lee Award by the National Down Syndrome Congress for her work passing the act.
Mast was also in a documentary about Down syndrome awareness called “Just Like You.” The documentary talks about what it means to have Down syndrome. The documentary mainly focuses on the similarities people share and the importance of treating everyone with respect.
“You have to keep that in your heart — treat other people like they want to be treated,” Mast said.
In 2019, when Mast accepted the Laura Lee Self-Advocate Leadership Award in Reno, Nevada, she gave the keynote speech talking about her advocacy for Down syndrome, her goals in life and stories about herself.
Mast said getting the award was very emotional for her.
“I have hope in myself that I’ll live my dreams,” Mast said.
Mast said her dream is to be an actress and to get married.
Since getting accepted at MSU, Mast has explored her passion for acting by taking theater classes.
Along with her regular academic courses, Mast and the other students in the Bear POWER program take an academic support class together.
Bear POWER is a two year certification program focused on preparing students with intellectual disabilities for employment and independence after college.
Students accepted into the program live in the residence halls, navigate campus and though they receive support through the Bear POWER program and peer ambassadors, there is not all-day support.
“We are really focused on inclusion,” said Rachel Heinz, director of Bear POWER. “We want our students to make friends, to get involved across campus and to not always hang out with Bear POWER students because we want them to be part of campus.”
Each January, up to 10 students are accepted into the program.
“It’s important for us to make sure students are ready for this level of independence,” said Heinz. “We really just kind of look at our pool of applicants and see if they’re ready for college, if it’s something they want to do.”
To help acclimate to college and campus life, peer ambassadors provide academic and social support for students in Bear POWER.
“A lot of times it can look like having lunch on campus or going to an event together — lots of fun things like that,” Heinz said.
Heinz said she is very proud of Mast for getting involved on campus.
Heinz describes Mast as outgoing, confident, compassionate, sparkly, fun and engaging.
“One of my favorite things is to be walking through the dining hall with her and everybody knows her,” Heinz said. “Or if you’re walking across campus, everyone will be like, ‘Oh, hi Rachel!’ She knows everybody.”
Mast advises her peers to focus and study, not be friends with people who treat you badly and to not focus too much about what people think of you.
Mast has a palpable joy and lust for life. She likes hanging out with friends, going to sporting events, playing games and supporting others.
“I am Rachel. I have Down syndrome but I am not called Down syndrome. I really love my life.”
Students can get involved in Bear Power by becoming an ambassador which requires training two hours a week along with providing academic and social support to students. In particular they are looking for male ambassadors. If you are interested in working in part of the Bear Power Program, you can contact Rachel Heinz at email@example.com.