A college student, three years early 15-year-old enters liberal arts program

August 28, 1996|By Diane E. Otts | Diane E. Otts,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Like her peers, 15-year-old Kate Flanagan of Columbia is returning to school this fall. But instead of entering the 10th grade at Wilde Lake High School as scheduled, she is at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.

Kate is one of 60 young women from around the country taking part in the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted at the small women's liberal arts college. The program allows academically gifted females to begin their college education one to four years early.

Nationally, 1 percent of college students are younger than 18, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Mary Baldwin College contacted Kate in February 1994 during her eighth-grade year after learning that as a seventh-grader she scored 1120 points out of a possible 1600 on the Scholastic Assessment Tests -- more than 200 points higher than the average college freshman scores.

"When I read the letter describing the program, I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of it," said Kate. Her mother, Katherine Flanagan, needed a little more convincing.

The next month, Kate and her mother attended an open house at the college. Everything from the charm of the school to the thorough support for the students appealed to them.

Kate and 50 other girls applied for the program, a process that included a two-hour interview, four essay questions, a review of test scores and grades and recommendations from middle school teachers. Kate was accepted and offered a partial scholarship but decided to defer for one year.

"I was glad that Katie decided to do one year of high school first," her mother said. "I wasn't ready to lose her in just five months."

The year of high school, from 1995 to 1996, allowed her to take algebra, Kate said, and to "know exactly what I would be missing." She decided that she wouldn't miss much.

"The high school scene is not that appealing to me. I made friends, but not any close friends," she said.

At college, she will miss her mother and boyfriend of two years, she said, but plans to make the three-hour trip home every other weekend and is already looking forward to the monthlong winter break.

Her mother said: "As we talked to people about the decision, all the kids said, 'Don't skip,' and all the adults said, 'Skip. You're not missing anything.' We figured the adults knew what they were talking about."

"Kids mentioned the prom," Kate said, "but I went to homecoming and I can't imagine that the prom is much different."

"Besides," said her mother, "four years is a lot of time to put in for a dance."

Nora Scanlan, a guidance counselor at Wilde Lake, helped Kate cut through the red tape. "She showed an amazing amount of perseverance," Scanlan said.

Kate was placed in an early admissions program that is usually for students with three years of high school, Scanlan said. After Kate has 30 college credits, she will receive her high school diploma and will be able to participate in the graduation ceremonies. Earning credits for the diploma will count toward her first year of college.

"She showed an unusual amount of initiative for a 14-year-old, so I knew she was ready," Scanlan said.

Cathryn Buzzoni, director of admissions at Mary Baldwin and assistant director of the gifted program, admitted Kate and 22 other girls to the program this year.

"What stands out to me [about Kate] is her amazing sense of maturity, her desire to do meaningful things with her life and the real sense of closeness she shares with her mother," Buzzoni said.

"She is sensitive, insightful and displays a wisdom far beyond her years."

The Program for the Exceptionally Gifted has a support system to help young students adjust to college life.

During Kate's first year, which began this week, she will live in a special residence hall supervised by a live-in staff. She will have a counselor whom she will meet with once a week and will be held to a list of rules. For instance, students are required to eat breakfast and at least one other meal each day.

In addition, they must sign out when they leave the dorm so their whereabouts are known, and they may not go into town alone. But, Kate said, "It's not any stricter than home."

She plans to study biology at Mary Baldwin and then hopes to attend medical school at the University of Maryland.

"I'd like to be a general practitioner in a small town," she said.

Two of Kate's three roommates also are majoring in biology and planning to be doctors. Kate, who habitually reads Newsweek cover to cover and enjoys discussing politics and world issues, said she was looking forward to being with students of similar intellectual ability and ambitions.

"It will be great to have somebody to talk to," she said.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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