Georgia Tech’s EXCEL program honored at 2022 Big Game Ball by the National Down Syndrome Congress

Georgia Tech’s Expanding Career, Education, and Leadership Opportunities (EXCEL) program was recognized by the National Down Syndrome Congress at its inaugural 2022 Big Game Ball. The event, presented by Peach Bowl, Inc., served as a prelude to the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic games that officially mark the start of college football season.

EXCEL student and rising junior Martha Haythorn, who has been involved with the National Down Syndrome Congress since she was young, presented the honor to EXCEL staff during the Sept. 1 gala, which was held at the College Football Hall of Fame. 

“It has been an incredible honor to be in a post-secondary program like EXCEL. I am so proud of being a student here,” said Haythorn, who is passionate about disability rights and currently serving as an advocacy intern with the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation at Georgia Tech. “There is still a lot of work to do, but we go above and beyond to advocate to help these programs grow in other states as well.”

Leadership from each university receiving the award also provided congratulatory remarks during the event celebrating the individuals and organizations which have made significant contributions to creating and enhancing inclusive postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities. The other institutional honorees were Clemson University, the University of Georgia, and the University of Oregon.

“EXCEL Director Ken Surdin and his team of experts make us proud every day,” said Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera. “Under their tutelage, EXCEL students learn so many important skills — most importantly, how to grow into confident, independent adults, just like the rest of our students. And as they learn, they teach profound lessons of determination, possibility, and positivity to everyone who’s fortunate enough to interact with them.”

Surdin, Assistant Director Nathan Heald, and Senior Lecturer Ashley McKeen were in attendance to accept this first-time honor from the National Down Syndrome Congress.

“I’m incredibly proud of Martha who has been a role model for other Georgia Tech students,” said Surdin. “She is an activist for disability rights and women’s rights through her various internships and experiences. Martha truly is a model student and is using her time in college to prepare for a career in public policy and advocacy.”

“Martha is such an important advocate for our program and other Inclusive Post-Secondary Education programs,” added McKeen. “It’s not every day that we get to hear the impact our program has on the lives of our students, and I was filled with pride when Martha introduced the EXCEL program to the crowded room at the College Football Hall of Fame.”

The gala, also serving as a fundraiser for the National Down Syndrome Congress, concluded with a check presentation on Labor Day during the second quarter of the Georgia Tech-Clemson football game. Haythorn again played an important role, accepting the check on behalf of the national nonprofit that is dedicated to an improved world for individuals with Down syndrome through advocacy, public awareness, and resources. 

“The Big Game Ball sought to increase awareness of inclusive postsecondary opportunities for students with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities,” said Jordan Kough, executive director of the National Down Syndrome Congress. “The event will fund scholarships for students with Down syndrome and support the work of the National Down Syndrome Congress as we continue to ensure quality model standards for postsecondary programs and policy support to educators who continue to forge the path of inclusive education at all levels.”

EXCEL was founded in 2014 by Terry Blum, faculty director of the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact, and Cyrus Aidun, professor of mechanical engineering. In 2020, EXCEL became a unit within the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing.

With 312 Inclusive Post-Secondary Education opportunities nationwide, EXCEL is among the 8.3% of the four-year programs to offer on-campus housing, financial aid, inclusive courses, and internships at a public university.  

—Joëlle Walls, CEISMC Communications

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  • Attendees included (l-r) Ashley McKeen, EXCEL senior lecturer, Ken Surdin, EXCEL director, Martha Haythorn, EXCEL student, Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera and first lady Beth Cabrera, and Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech's head football coach.

  • EXCEL celebrated at 2022 Big Game Ball with Director Ken Surdin, student Martha Haythorn, Senior Lecturer Ashley McKeen, and Assistant Director Nathan Heald.

  • Martha Haythorn at Georgia Tech-Clemson game with Jordan Kough and Rhonda Rice from the National Down Syndrome Congress and Ashley McKeen from EXCEL.

  • Martha Haythorn with cheerleaders at Georgia Tech-Clemson University game on Labor Day.