Tigard teens graduate from college at 16 and 19
One month from now, Tesca Fitzgerald will be heading off to grad school.
Its the plan of many bright college graduates with dreams of a masters degree or Ph. D., but chances are when she arrives at the Georgia Institute of Technology, her classmates wont be her age.
Tescas classmates have never been her age.
In college at age 12, Tesca graduated last week from Portland State University and is on the fast track to receive her Ph. D. in cognitive science and human robotic interaction by age 22.
But the red-headed 16-year-old isnt the only whiz kid in her family. Her two sisters Tayt, 19, and Ty, 13, are making similar strides, and mother Ami Fitzgerald says its all thanks to their homeschooled education, which allowed her daughters the freedom to study at their own speed.
Mastering their subjects
Ami and Mark Fitzgerald began homeschooling their daughters in their Bull Mountain home when Tayt was in the second grade.
At first, the idea was to get her out of a private school where she was being bullied, but Ami Fitzgerald says she soon saw the benefits of allowing her daughters to work at their own pace.
I guarantee, if you home school your kids for eight hours a day every day, theyll be in college at age 12, too, Ami Fitzgerald says.
The girls would work through coursework in a summer that would take other students an entire year to master. Ami spent years refining her daughters curriculum, using different teaching styles for her three daughters.
Its our responsibility, Ami says. If they arent understanding a subject, thats my problem.
For one daughter, taking walks down the block helped some lessons to sink in, she says. For another, flash cards scattered throughout the house helped her memorize vocabulary words.
The plan was never to make their daughters head to college early, Ami says. The plan was to give the girls the opportunity to learn at the pace that worked for them.
We didnt say to Tes and Tayt, Heres the plan, and heres how youre going to get there. It was more like helping them figure out their direction and making sure they have the opportunities for those things, she adds.
Tayt and Tesca skipped middle school and high school, enrolling in college at age 14 and 12, respectively.
While other students their age were learning to balance equations, Tayt was attending college courses at Portland Community College with her sister.
That transition into college took some getting used to, Tesca says, both for herself and for her classmates, who were not used to the idea of a 12-year-old taking advanced math courses.
It was a love/hate relationship, she says. It was a great new class that I looked forward to, but I kept getting the same questions from students day after day.
By the end of the year, however, the novelty of her presence wore off, Tesca says.
Now, most people dont say anything, she adds. They think Im 19 or 20, most of the time.
Top secret plans
The Fitzgerald girls say they dont miss having the traditional high school experience.
I ask people about if they enjoyed high school or wish they had skipped it, and I get answers both ways, Tesca says. I liked the way that things turned out for me, and I wouldnt change anything if I could go back.
For 13-year-old Ty, her coursework today includes physics, pre-calculus and building robots through FIRST, an organization aimed at getting students involved in engineering and technology through robotics.
All three of the Fitzgerald children are interested in robotics, joining FIRST robotics teams from an early age, and even forming their own team in 2009.
That was one of our best years, Tayt says. If we came up with ideas at 1 a.m., we could just walk across the hall.
Ty says she hopes to follow in her sisters footsteps and graduate college before the age of 20. She plans on becoming an engineer after finishing school.
I like building things, she says. With programming, you have to look at a screen of random numbers and figure out what they mean to make things work.
Yep, says Tesca, winking at her sister. That basically sums up my job.
I dont know how you do it, Ty finishes.
Tesca says she has always been drawn to computers, like her father, a computer programmer.
There was always some computer or something around to play with, she says.
Tesca is especially excited to work with human-robotic interactions and wants to start studying cognitive science.
It is something that I have always found fascinating, she says. We will never fully understand how the brain works. Its the kind of field that you could start learning and never get to the end of it because we dont know, and it ties in closely to computer science and artificial intelligence.
Ty has her own plans for her sisters.
Its top secret, she says, sitting next to her sisters at the family dinner table. Our future plans: Its my robot. Ill build it, and Tesca will program it.
Mark says he is proud of his daughters and all they have accomplished.
When your kids graduate from college, its always a proud moment, he says. But the fact that they are going to grad school is also very inspiring for us. And the fact that they are at such a young age, its all attributable to them.
Still, he adds, watching Tayt and Tesca graduate was a bittersweet moment.
The trouble with having girls as smart as they are is that you have to see them advance a lot sooner than you were planning, he laughs. You have to deal with that.