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Child geniuses: Do they belong in college?

By Andrew J. Pulskamp

Gregory Smith is ten years old. He's also a freshman - in college. While most students slog away for years in search of that elusive diploma, Smith could have his masters in hand before he can even drive a car. The blonde-haired, blue eyed boy is obviously a genius.

"I've always had a dream to go to college since I was about four years old. I remember seeing flyers about MIT and aerospace engineering. I dreamed about all those areas that I could explore," he says.

Smith attends Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, a liberal arts institution with about 1,100 students. He doesn't think that his tender age really makes a difference with the other 1,099 studious scholars. He says, "I believe college is not a place dependent upon age. It is a place where everyone can go to learn. Age is not an issue in college."

Some students say age is an issue at college. Will Pluim, a third year physics student at Randolph Macon, says, "I think he's a good kid and I'm glad he has the opportunity to [go to college]."

Not all students agree with Pluim though. He says there are those on campus who don't like the thought of having a ten-year-old participate in their classes.

"There's sort of a split. About half the people he comes into contact with accept him and like him. The other half think he shouldn't be [in college] for whatever reasons," says Pluim. "One of the most common reasons [students] have for not wanting him in college is the fear that [Smith] is stunting his growth as a kid."

Smith, though, is not your average kid. In fact, his intelligence is off the charts. IQ tests are unable to measure it. When most babies are two and a half months old, parents are struggling to interpret different cries and screams -- Smith was talking to his parents. He could read, perform addition and correct grammar by the time he was 18 months old.

Pluim thinks there may even be some advantages to being a ten-year-old freshman. "He has a lot of questions and he's not afraid to ask. One advantage of being ten and not being what a normal college age is, is that college-age students are more inhibited about what questions they ask, and they worry about what people think of them."

The signs of a world class mind peeked through very early in Smith's life and though some people might think that he was pushed along by overbearing parents, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Janet Smith, Gregory's mother says, "My husband and I had great experiences throughout school, in high school, in junior high and in college. We met when we were in college, my husband played football. It was basically the stereotypical ideal school experience."

Janet says it was tough when she and her husband realized Gregory was not going to have that experience. His incredible gifts meant he was going to have a different life, and much of it due to Gregory's own wishes. "When he was only seven we stood back and let go. It's emotionally grueling. He's my baby, I mean that's my child," Janet says.

When they let go of Gregory he flourished academically, he started high school when he was eight and walked out with a diploma two years later. And even after graduation, it was still full steam ahead for the blonde whiz kid.

"We keep telling him, 'you're eight years ahead in school.' He has time to slow down. But he's adamant about doing it now, about capturing this moment. We just try to be supportive, loving and nurturing and not controlling," explains Janet.

Gregory may be ambitious but he's also a kid. He does what any other kid would do when it comes to games and sports, although he does go about these endeavors in his own way.

  When he plays basketball he doesn't play H-O-R-S-E, he plays G-R-E-G-A-R-I-O-U-S. And it's just not enough to shoot around; Gregory constantly keeps track of his shooting percentages from all areas on the court. "Statistical analysis is how he makes it fun. I think he needs to be doing three or four things at any one time to make it interesting to him," explains his mother.

But Gregory doesn't just play basketball -- after all he's got an academic career to worry about. He says, "Well I want to get three Ph.D.'s. One in biomedical research, one in aerospace design and one in political science. With the Ph.D. in aerospace design I want to design space station so we can colonize other planets and mine asteroids. With the Ph.D. in biomedical research I want to find the cures for diseases like cystic fibrosis, AIDS and cancer. I want to learn about the regeneration of cells and learn to reverse the aging process."

Gregory has another goal on that grand list, "I would like to become President of the United States." He sees it as an avenue to achieving his true passion -- world peace. In fact, he has set up his own organization called IEM (Inspiration, Education and Motivation) for non-violence. With this organization he hopes to educate everyone, but specifically children, so they can avoid the cycle of violence that has captured virtually all-previous generations. He says, "I believe it is through education that we will succeed in peace because education leads to understanding and understanding leads to alternative solutions."

Smith is not completely alone in his brilliance, though his mental prowess is astonishing, other super-intelligent kids are springing up on campuses across the country. Some schools are even throwing the doors wide open for these ultra-bright teenyboppers by setting up special programs to attract them.

At Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, there are 67 geniuses from around the country that take part in the school's Program for the Exceptionally Gifted. The program is only for gifted females, as the university is all-women.

Giannina Garces is a member of the PEG program. The 15-year-old is in her second year at Mary Baldwin College studying biochemistry.

Most girls her age would still be a year away from the junior prom, but Garces says she doesn't regret her decision to skip the entire high school experience. "I think I would have had an equally good experience in high school. But I would not have had the same opportunities for a serious academic career. I wouldn't have been able to apply for medical school when I was 18."

Garces is intent on becoming an oncologist then traveling to Spain where she wants to set up a clinic.

Celeste Rhodes, the executive director of PEG at Mary Baldwin, says the 15-year-old program does more than just open up an academic world to participants. "Many students find a true peer group in the program. For some it's the first time they've come across anyone who is like them. It's a very meaningful experience," she remarks.

According to Rhodes and Garces other students at the school are quite receptive to PEG members.

"One great thing about being on a college campus is people here are extremely open-minded," says Garces. "I think it's a lot less plausible that students would attach a stigma to someone just because they were in the PEG program."

Rhodes says that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between PEG students and the general student body. Although Smith stands out physically as a ten-year-old boy at Randolph Macon, it's not unusual for a 14-year-old girl at Mary Baldwin to pass for 18.

Though PEG students and Gregory Smith both go with the flow when it comes to the college experience, for all of them there are some concessions that need to be made. Campus security becomes a big concern when you're dealing with students between the ages of ten and 15. Janet Smith says, "Security was a primary issue when we were looking at schools."

PEG students are watched a little more closely at their school than the rest of the student population due to their age. Garces explains, "We have much tighter restrictions than the traditional students. We have a curfew of midnight on weekdays and one [a.m.] on weekends. You have to be in the building by 11 during the week and 12 on the weekends. Socially there are more restrictions. There's more of an impediment to having males in the dorm. We're not allowed to have them in our rooms -- only in the common area."

When it comes to college it's apparent that geniuses have their own unique experience. It seems that with their tremendous gifts they might be enjoying the whole education ride a lot more than the average everyday collegian.

Smith certainly appreciates the value of learning and has attached his own peace movement to it. "I love reading Plato and Aristotle," says the ten-year-old. "I'm very interested in philosophy and the greatness of scholastics. Education is one thing that is very important in my movement."

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