Best friends with Down syndrome prepare for college together at USCA

From Left to Right: Ava Shahbahrami and Julianna “Jules” 

Julianna “Jules” Gray and Ava Shahbahrami, best friends since first grade, share more than the decision to attend the same college this fall at the University of South Carolina Aiken. 

Gray and Shahbahrami, both from Lexington, South Carolina, have Down syndrome. “Every teacher they’ve had says they’re just like an old married couple,” said Patricia Gates, Ava’s mother. 

The two were recently accepted into USCA’s Pacer LIFE Program, which provides students with intellectual disabilities the chance to have a collegiate experience. Led by Program Director Dr. Melissa Martin and Coordinator Nicole Pioli, students can work on individualized goals in various areas such as academics, employment, social engagement, and independent living. USCA is the only college in the Central Savannah River Region to offer such a program.  “All of the students have made progress in academics, employment, and independence over the last two semesters on campus,” said Dr. Martin.  


Gray and Shahbahrami first met one another while attending Red Bank Elementary School in Lexington. “They’ve been in school with each other ever since then and somehow they just clicked,” said Toni Gray, Jules’s mother. “They’ve been to school with a lot of kids, but she and Ava have just always had a special bond.” 


While in high school, the girls joined an occupational program that teaches responsibility and independence. Throughout the years, the two have held several jobs including working in the school’s front office, cafeteria, and more. 

Gray and Shahbahrami’s mothers talk weekly, ensuring the girls can spend time together. “They even make sure to FaceTime one another every night at 8 p.m.,” said Gates. 

 As the girls prepare for college, their mothers say they are grateful for programs like Pacer LIFE. “When we came for the open house it felt like home,” Gates said. “Dr. Martin made me feel like they care so much about the kids in the program. With Pacer LIFE being a new program, I know they’re going to do their best.” 


Jules and Ava will be wonderful additions to our program,” said Dr. Martin. “Their story is unique two students who have had a lifelong friendship now attending a LIFE program.” 


“This program has been a God send because it’s close to home,” said Gray. “The fact that Ava and Jules both got in is just awesome.” 


Not only does the feeling of going to college together excite the best friends, but they were also recently hired to work together at Bitty and Beau’s Coffee Shop in Columbia over the summer. The coffee chain is known to value people with developmental disabilities, providing many affected individuals with their first job. Gates says she plans to give Ava her new work apron while vacationing in Paris this week. 

Gates and Gray couldn’t be prouder of their daughters and say the best friends are excited about making friends, meeting new people, and living on their own as they get ready for college. 

 Dr. Martin says that she’s overjoyed with Pacer LIFE’s first cohort and says incoming students can look forward to new friendships and opportunities at USCA. “Pacer LIFE students are first and foremost USCA students,” she said. “That will be no different for the 2024 cohort.  They will be immersed on campus, attend classes, live independently with support, and get jobs.” 

Both girls are even making national headlines: 

FOX News - Lifelong best friends attend college together

ABC World News Tonight - Longtime friends get ready to attend college together

For more information, contact Angela Saxon -