UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At the age of 18, most students are starting their college careers.
Meanwhile, College of Information Sciences and Technology’s summer 2018 student marshal Adam Smith is completing his.
Smith, who is 18 years old, will earn his bachelor’s degree in information sciences and technology on Aug. 11 through Penn State World Campus. He began his college studies at the age of 13 after completing an accelerated high school education program at home in Manassas, Virginia.
While he admits that he’s somewhat eccentric and extensively, borderline encyclopedically knowledgeable in a variety of topics, Smith doesn’t consider himself as intelligent as his achievement may imply. Rather, he says, he’s mostly just been fortunate.
“The main thing I take home about this whole experience is how important and how much of an advantage it is to have good opportunities early in life,” he said.
Smith explained that as a young child, he found letters and words fascinating. He loved when parents and teachers read to him, and he could recognize written letters before he could speak. When he took his kindergarten evaluation, he was encouraged to accelerate and enroll in first grade instead.
Writing, on the other hand, was a different story. Smith said that every aspect of handwriting was challenging to him, especially when expected to apply the skills in the classroom. He couldn’t quite grasp his teacher’s instructions on how to correctly hold a pencil and form letters and words, causing him anxiety which he says he still struggles with when under pressure today. He noted that this, combined with the hectic environment of the public school classroom, ultimately stunted his success.
Recognizing these challenges, Smith’s parents opted to enroll him in the Idaho Distance Education Academy (IDEA), giving him the opportunity to learn in the comfortable environment of his own home, where there was far less pressure than in a public school classroom. His mother was able to develop a custom curriculum for her son to capitalize on his strengths and nurture his weaknesses.
He continued his education at home when his family moved from Idaho to Virginia for his father’s career before enrolling in Orion, an online college preparatory high school.
“By the time I was in seventh grade at age 11, I was really only nominally at that grade,” said Smith. “In reality, I was already learning at a high school level in just about every subject that interested me.”
His experience at Orion allowed him to learn at his own pace, and he graduated as salutatorian at the age of 13. That same year, he was accepted into Penn State World Campus.
“[World Campus] has been greatly accommodating to my usual paradigm of learning at my own pace,” he said. “It’s also great to be doing this from the comfort and luxury of my own home.”
Smith said that he could have chosen a physical campus closer to home, but found that other programs’ online offerings weren’t accredited or didn’t have the strong reputation of World Campus’.
“This would have required going to campus a lot more frequently, which just wasn’t a compelling option for someone who is supposed to still be in middle school,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t have fit in, to say the least.”
Instead, the World Campus program allowed Smith to continue benefiting from what he enjoyed about Orion — learning at his own pace in a more comfortable environment.
“Penn State’s [online program] was the only one around at the time that was so, well, complete, and offered by such an accredited school at that,” he added. “When that acceptance letter came in four years ago, it was an easy choice to go with Penn State.”
As a Penn State student, Smith was named to the Dean’s List every semester. He demonstrated extensive experience with Java programming, which included working in the NetBeans and Eclipse integrated development environments. He also spent several summers working as a network manager with a small startup real estate company, where he established networks, configured routers and built websites.
But, he says, the most important thing he gained from his experience through Penn State World Campus is, well, the experience.
“I’ve gotten the opportunity to so deeply enrich my primary interest, and even some of my other ones, starting at such a young age,” he said. “I was always going to keep learning about what I’m interested in on my own, but never in such a curated, guided experience that’s actually trying to guide me toward becoming useful as a person [like I got through World Campus].”
He explained that it was interesting to interact virtually with a number of people from different backgrounds, many of whom were more than double his age.
“They were just my peers working together with me, expecting as much from me as they do from others,” he said. “I’ve never used my age as an excuse to under-deliver, and I wouldn’t have wanted them to take it as one.”
Now, as he approaches commencement, serving as the College of IST’s student marshal is one of the biggest honors Smith has ever had, he said.
“For the first time, it’s actually seeming like everything I’ve been working through all these years has finally led up to something,” he said. “I’m just so happy to be here for this, even if I’m still trying to tell myself that I deserve this, that this is something I earned.”
After graduation, Smith plans to continue his education and strives to be the first member of his family to earn a doctoral degree, which Smith says may not be such an easy feat. Even after all of his educational success, he admittedly struggles with confidence in his academic abilities. This stems from his early challenges in public school, remarks from his extended family who maintained a different lifestyle than Smith and didn’t place an emphasis on academics, and the stereotypical perception of homeschooling. Earning a doctorate would in a way, for Smith, prove all of the naysayers wrong.
“Earning a Ph.D. would prove to myself what I have been told time and time again I’m capable of,” he said. “If I could look myself in the mirror and call myself Dr. Adam Smith, maybe all these self-doubts would finally go away.”
Nevertheless, he encourages fellow Penn State students to take advantage of the opportunities the University provides to them, along with the ones they make for themselves.
“Figure out what you’re good at and capitalize on it,” he said. “If you can figure out something that you’re talented in, and it happens to be something that’s marketable, that can be a really good starting point.”
He concluded, “Just try to play the cards you have, keep doing what you’re good at, and you might just be able to make it into something.”
Visit the Penn State World Campus website to learn more about the bachelor’s degree in information science and technology offered online.