Oct. 24-Nov. 6, 2003
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Nursing School aims to deepen, diversify nursing pool

Grant to help U.Va. develop historical preservation plan
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Board sends message with salary hikes
Lawmakers back higher education but can’t agree on how to pay for it
Tracking the railroad
Nov. 20 resource fair welcomes new faculty and staff
Writer Francine Prose comes to U.Va.
Teen grad students excel in academics

Teen grad students excel in academics

Monique E. Okumakpeyi By Matt Kelly

Their lives are normal to them. For U.Va.’s teenage graduate students, a masters’ degree is simply the next step in accelerated academic careers.

There are currently four teen-age graduate students, the most the University has had in at least five years, and each came for individual reasons.

“I started high school when I was 11, so it would probably feel abnormal for me to be at the same level as my 19-year-old peers,” said Monique E. Okumakpeyi. A full-time staff auditor for Ernst & Young in New York City, she is enrolled in the McIntire School of Commerce’s summer master’s program.

“I went to college at 13,” said Isabelle L. Stanton, 17-year-old teaching assistant in the Department of Mathematics. “This is not something I notice so much.”

Isabelle L. Stanton
isabelle L. Stanton

Gregory R. Smith, 14, also a graduate student in math, received a wave of publicity this summer when he enrolled. Smith, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics, has been making headlines as an academic prodigy and international children’s rights activist much of his life.

“Since we have been on an accelerated academic pace our entire educational journey, attending graduate school seems very natural to us,” Smith said about young learners. And they all love their work.

“Math is something I can do well that makes sense in my head,” Stanton said. “I enjoy the logic of it.”

“I can spend 12 to 14 hours in a lab and still be reluctant to leave at the end of the day,” said Jennifer K. Wolf, 19, who researches infectious diseases on a molecular level. She entered U.Va. at 16 as a third-year transfer student and, at 17, was the University’s youngest Harrison Undergraduate Research Award recipient.

Okumakpeyi has also set the youngest benchmark for the McIntire’s summer program.

“I do know that I am blessed to have reached this level of education at my age and have such a wonderful job,” Okumakpeyi said.

Wolf, too, feels blessed because she was able to find her path in life early.
While blessed, they still work hard.

“People automatically assume that I’m smart or a ‘genius’ for having achieved so much academically at my age,” Okumakpeyi said. “I struggle just like every other student.”

Good grades, she said, were expected, not rewarded, in her Brooklyn, N.Y., home.
Wolf also resents the genius label, saying she has worked hard for what she has gotten. Wolf’s mother, who taught college-level English, exposed her to academia early. In the fall of 1998, Wolf entered Mary Baldwin College’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, which also boasts Stanton among its alumnae.

Wolf did not advertise her age when she went to college.

“Everyone just assumed I was a normal college age,” she said. “I let people assume whatever they would assume.”

Aviva Dove-Viebahn, 20, another Mary Baldwin alumna who received a master’s degree in art history from U.Va. last spring, had few age concerns, except when fellow graduate students selected where to socialize, since she was too young to go to bars.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever had a truly negative response from someone upon finding out that I’m so young,” Dove-Viebahn said. “I never felt it necessary to ‘seek friends my own age’ because none of the other graduate students — in the art history program and friends from other departments — seemed to mind that I was younger.”

Smith said he has always been able to work with a wide range of ages.

Acceleration can be helpful. Skipping high school, Wolf said, spared her four years of boredom.

“I do think it’s an opportunity more students should be offered,” Wolf said. “There is a real societal perception that it is a bad thing for students to go to such high education at such an early age, but I think it depends on the person. Some people are ready for it before others, and some people are never ready.”

While young, the students are blending in well.

“If you don’t look very closely, you don’t know they’re here,” Jeffrey J. Holt, associate professor of math, said of Smith and Stanton. “And I think that’s a good thing because then they are not scrutinized differently.”

Stanton, who is teaching the fourth-hour discussion section of calculus, and Smith are the first mathematics graduate students under 20 years old, said Donald E. Ramirez, associate chairman of mathematics and advanced calculus teacher.

The publicity surrounding Smith’s enrollment has been positive for the department, Ramirez said.

“It shows we have a good department that attracts gifted students,” he said.

The wider University also benefits from younger graduate students.

“Graduate students are vitally important to our research enterprise,” said R. Ariel Gomez, vice president for research and graduate studies. “They look at problems in new ways, bring fresh thinking and provide a tremendous amount of work.”

Wolf thinks students should follow their own vision and the rest of it will fall into place.  

“It’s the same story as with anything else,” Wolf said. “If you truly are who you are, some people are going to love you and some people are going to hate you. And how much does it really matter how much those people who don’t like you really think? As long as you’re doing what you love to do, it doesn’t really matter.”


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