Thursday, February 22, 2018
Human Interest

Eustis girl, only 14 but a math whiz, set to begin college life at Stetson

EUSTIS — Danielle Carson, 14, is almost two years away from getting her braces off or her driver's license.

But next week she is starting college.

On Thursday, Danielle's mother planned to drive her to Stetson University, a small, private school in DeLand, to start studying math.

"I love getting the answers and working through the puzzles," said Danielle, the kind of teenager who answers with a "yes, ma'am."

Danielle, who has been home-schooled year-round, will be the youngest out of this fall's class of incoming 920 students, which includes a pair of 16-year-olds and a 55-year-old, the oldest.

While it's unusual for students so young to go to college, it's not unheard of.

At Stetson, a 13-year-old enrolled at Stetson about a decade ago.

Ahmed Mohamed of Tampa enrolled at the University of South Florida at age 15. This spring, he graduated with a 4.0 GPA with plans to go to medical school and law school at the same time.

Adrian Gilliam was the youngest student accepted into the University of Central Florida when he arrived on campus at age 13 in fall 2011. UCF has only kept records on students' ages since 2004.

Now, on the verge of turning 19, Gilliam is a software engineer living in the Atlanta suburbs. The 2015 UCF graduate says he might get his master's degree in computer science at Georgia Tech.

"No matter what happens, you have to set your own goals and your own standards," was his advice to Danielle.

For at least the next three years, Danielle will continue to live with her mother and her father, Jamie, a computer programmer, and her 12-year-old brother, Josh, on 15 acres in Lake County. She earns a $1 a day allowance feeding the farm animals and sells chicken eggs so she can someday buy a car and drive herself to school.

Her mother, Mindy Carson, said Danielle masters math concepts quickly before moving on to something more challenging.

Danielle sat seriously in front of a math computer game at age 3, relaxing only when she completed the work. At age 4, she learned multiplication. By kindergarten, she understood pre-algebra. In elementary school, a college professor tutored her.

At 12, she took the SAT. She joined Mensa, a society where members score within the top 2 percent of the general population on an intelligence test.

"If you learn to work really hard at something, it's going to pay off," said Carson, an adjunct at Valencia College.

Last year, Danielle audited classes at Stetson that didn't count toward her bachelor's degree, studying statistics and calculus.

Some eyed Danielle, who is slender and built like a ballerina, as she handled her heavy backpack and climbed out of her mother's car.

The college librarian, trying to be helpful, once directed her to the children's section.

"It's just a little odd walking around the campus and everyone staring at me," said Danielle.

Danielle decided on her own to go to college full-time this fall, Carson said.

Stetson decided to admit Danielle because of her strong test scores and her home school transcripts, said Joel Bauman, vice president of enrollment. She won a partial scholarship.

Plus, Danielle received glowing recommendations in earlier Stetson courses.

"If there were any doubt, which there weren't, that was proof in the pudding," Bauman said.

Danielle was a strong student, said her Stetson associate math professor Lisa Coulter, who watched her start the semester quiet then become someone who was comfortable joking around with other students.

Mindy Carson doesn't worry about Danielle missing out on football games and prom, the moments that make up the quintessential high school experiences. That just didn't seem to fit Danielle, who plays piano and solves her Rubik's cubes or watches 1980s movies in her free time.

Danielle is sensitive and quiet but hungry for a challenge in her education, her mother said.

What worries her more is that Danielle will feel the pressure of getting perfect grades in college. Danielle aspires to graduate from Stetson in three years and eventually get her Ph.D. in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"At Stetson, they have an A-minus. And that's not good enough for her," Carson said.

Carson won't reveal Danielle's SAT scores because she doesn't want her to know how smart she is.

Danielle said she is eager to prove herself.

"They're going to think I'm there by mistake or because my parents got me in," Danielle said. "I have to show I can do the work."

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