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Outside the Norm

Students who arrive on campus while their peers are still in high school thrive in MIT’s classrooms and culture.
August 1, 2005

A Coke machine got me an internship at Los Alamos National Labs,” says Drew Reese, who will be an MIT junior this fall–and she’s only half joking.

Reese is majoring in nuclear engineering, and when she graduates, she wants to design nuclear reactors. But when the administrators at Los Alamos received her application for an internship this summer and asked her if she had any mechanical experience, she was stumped. This was an area where her transcripts wouldn’t help a whole lot.

But like many MIT students, Reese has more going on in her life than schoolwork. Turns out she’s also in charge of refreshments for the Lecture Series Committee (LSC), the campus group that organizes screenings of recent commercial films. It’s her job to make sure the popcorn and soda fountains are stocked and running. It may not be glamorous, but it’s challenging.

“Every once in a while,” she says, “this Coke machine makes gargling noises and starts dispensing soda on its own.” Rather than send an SOS to a repair technician, however, Reese tackles the machine’s eccentricities on her own. “I take it apart and see if there’s anything I can do. I clean the parts, replace a circuit breaker, whatever.” As a result, the audiences at LSC movies always have cold soda. With some hesitation, she explained this to the Los Alamos administrators. They wrote back saying she had a job.

“I do think that Coke machine got me in,” she laughs.

It’s not surprising that Reese would give a soda machine the same attention she gives her physics classes or her coursework in Chinese literature and culture. In fact, there’s a forcefulness about her that may at first be easy to miss. When she speaks, she angles her head down slightly, and her bangs fall in front of her eyes. At first this might be mistaken for shyness, but it soon becomes clear there is a quiet resoluteness under her apparent diffidence. She brushes her hair to the side and looks at you intensely as she speaks in a calm, measured voice. Reese is passionate about excellence in all aspects of her life.

And when she first came to campus, she was 16.

Each year, a handful of “underage” teenagers are among MIT’s incoming students. The university takes no initiative to court them, but anywhere from one to five, ranging in age from 14 to 16, join the MIT community annually. What do these wunderkinder look like, talk like, act like? Do they spend all night sweating bullets over their laptops, or do they just lounge around their dorms effortlessly completing multiple homework assignments at once? Do they play chess blindfolded? Can they go a whole night speaking only in palindromes?

These questions are hard to answer, because if there’s any trait these students share, it’s the desire to blend in–to have their age be about as relevant as their eye color. Their birth dates matter far more to us than to them. No one knows this more than senior associate dean for students Robert Randolph.

“We try to be aware of these students, but the one thing we keep running up against is that they want to be treated just like everyone else,” says Randolph. “Conscious efforts to do things over the years, like have a support group, haven’t gone over well. We just monitor them from a distance and try not to be obtrusive.”

Reese, in particular, has blended in nicely. In addition to her duties as soda machine master, she’s also on the fencing team. Last year, she made the conference all-star team.

Other young students have had equal success blending in outside the classroom. Last year, as a 17-year-old freshman, Nivair (Nina) Gabriel spent her Friday afternoons meeting with the MIT Writers Group, where she’s revising the 200-page novel she wrote at 14. Seventeen-year-old freshman Derric Tay was a member of the Tech Squares, MIT’s square-dancing club. And this past spring, if you happened to wander past a classroom and overhear a young man teaching a for-credit seminar on poverty and HIV in Africa, that was 17-year-old sophomore Raja Bobbili.

Talk to each of these students, though, and the first thing that strikes you is how dissimilar their personalities, temperaments, and interests appear to be. The journeys that brought them to MIT differ as well. But there is a common theme running through all their stories: disrupted, and at times outright broken, relationships with the schools they attended.

Consider Gabriel, who entered MIT at age 16. She grew up in Pittsburgh. Both of her parents are MIT alums and were professors at Carnegie Mellon. But Gabriel hated school. To her, it was a thicket of red tape, a quagmire of mediocrity. “It was all mental stagnation and stupid bureaucracy,” she says, relieved that she’s finally at a point in her life where she can laugh about it. “The few good teachers were frustrated all the time.”

Even though all her classes were honors level, Gabriel was still miserable. She felt out of place among her fellow students, whose idea of fun, it seemed to her, was getting stoned in fast-food parking lots. So she applied all her energy to excelling academically and graduating early.

But however much she may have hated high school, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could love MIT more. “I feel like I’m a completely different person,” she says ebulliently. “Even my family tells me that I seem so much happier now. I’m finally doing things that are important. It’s hard and challenging, and it feels like everyone around me is smarter than me, but the people are great.”

As for the future, Gabriel is still deciding whether she wants to be a fiction writer or an astronaut.

Or take Bobbili, as ambitious a student as you’ll ever meet–though you’d never know it from his shy demeanor. He speaks so quietly that you might have to ask him to repeat himself every so often. Born in India, Bobbili (pronounced bob-il-ee) grew up in Zambia, where his father was a mining engineer. He attended private school through seventh grade, when his father’s company collapsed. No longer able to afford tuition, and with the Zambian public schools too deplorable to be considered, Bobbili opted to stay home and teach himself. He turned out to be a good teacher: by the time he was 13, he was a high-school graduate.

His parents, meanwhile, had started their own business and were able to afford school for Bobbili just as he finished it on his own. Still, he decided to reenroll anyway and take advantage of the resources and opportunities he was denied as a homeschooler, such as lab equipment and organized sports. Bobbili took International Baccalaureate courses, and when he entered MIT at 16, he had already earned a year of college credit.

Reese’s experience was neither as dramatic as Bobbili’s nor as visceral as Gabriel’s, but she still lacked a school to call her own. Growing up in a military family, she changed schools every year or two. “It was hard to make friends,” she says. “School and a social life weren’t a constant, but studies were.” Taking advanced-placement classes online, Reese had, by her junior year, pretty much exhausted everything high school had to offer.

Tay’s experience, too, was a mixture of home- and traditional schooling. A double major in chemical engineering and biology, Tay was homeschooled from the third grade; he entered high school at age 12 and became, among other things, a member of the debate team. He is a fast talker, and his ability to verbally spar is indicative of someone who cut his teeth in the rough-and-tumble of public debates. Tay has chosen a humanities concentration in political science.

Which leads to another common denominator among these students that may help explain why they fit so well into the MIT community: like many of their classmates, they have a wide range of interests. Tay’s dual interest in biochemistry and politics and Gabriel’s passion for both writing and aeronautical engineering have their counterpart in Reese’s devotion to a demanding subject outside her major: she is minoring in Chinese language and literature. Bobbili is double-majoring in electrical engineering and computer science and economics. He’s still deciding whether he wants to go into patent law or diplomacy.

The students’ wide range of interests and activities perhaps explains why Randolph’s support group has never gotten off the ground: its would-be members appear to have little, if any, trouble adjusting. Talk to them, and you don’t get the feeling that they are somehow overdeveloped “kids” coping with the shell shock of being plopped into a world they’re ill equipped to handle. Rather, the ease and the excitement with which they’ve acclimated to MIT lead to a rather unexpected question: what took them so long to get there?

He Ain’t No Prodigy, Father
MIT professor Erik Demaine’s office is in the Stata Center. If the building’s futuristic, cartoonlike exterior boggles the brain, then Demaine is the perfect tenant. On his desk, plastic gadgets abound, as do bluish pieces of glass that Demaine himself–an avid glassblower who also counts juggling and improvisational comedy among his extracurricular passions–has created.

Lanky, bearded, with abundant light-brown hair bound in a ponytail, Demaine looks like a guitarist in a Phish tribute band. He grew up on the road: his father, a single parent, supported himself and his young son by selling handcrafted jewelry at art shows all over the country. Rarely living in one place long enough assimilate into the local school system, Demaine was homeschooled by his father.

“I loved video games,” he says, “so one day I asked my father how they work.” A neighbor had an old computer, and on it Demaine learned some of the basics of writing code, with his father’s coaching. He was seven at the time. At 12, he entered Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he majored in computer science. By 14, he was in a PhD program at Waterloo University in Ontario. “I took it slow with the PhD,” he says, “realizing that if I ever wanted to live the normal life of a student, now was my last chance.”

Demaine has been a professor at MIT for four years. He is 24 years old.

While Demaine might seem like a real-life counterpart to Matt Damon’s Good Will Hunting supergenius character, he eschews any such comparison. Ask him his IQ, and he can’t answer. Convinced that IQ testing is pointless at best and misleading at worst, Demaine has refused to have his measured. Call him a prodigy and he positively bristles.

“I hate that word,” he says, not without a trace of contempt.

Spurning such labels isn’t false modesty. Demaine believes that while his situation is atypical, it shouldn’t be.

“The biggest misconception is that this sort of thing should be such an unusual phenomenon,” he says. “I think that many people could go to university much earlier than they do. Maybe not 12, but 16 should be easy.”

What hinders most teenagers’ development, in Demaine’s opinion, isn’t television or peer pressure or any of the cultural temptations that compete with school for attention; it’s school itself, the one-size-fits-all approach of public education. When Demaine briefly enrolled in public school during a slightly longer-than-usual stint in Miami Beach, FL, he was surprised by the boredom he felt and struck by the vast stretches of wasted time. “I think the existing system is very broken,” he says.

For those unusually bright students who never found schools where they really fit in, MIT can be a home away from home. But it can also require them to make some adjustments.

“Oftentimes,” says Randolph, “the hardest things…students face is coming to MIT and facing the possibility of being just average. If being an academic star is what got you through those early years, it can be hard to adjust to not being able to do anything better than a B.” And if this is the case for the average MIT student, how much more might it be true for people who have spent their adolescences bearing the “prodigy” label?

For these exceptional students, however, feeling unexceptional may be the best proof that, finally, they really do fit in. As Tay puts it, “MIT has killed whatever ego I had.”

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