HUDSON — Steven Casel remembers the day more than a year ago when Tiffany Colvin told him what she wanted to do with her life.
He was passing out papers in his Advanced Placement history class and also asking students about post-high school plans. When he got to Colvin, she didn't hesitate. She wanted to go to Australia to study marine biology.
He laughed. "I'm not going to say you can't do this, but that's an unusual goal to have," he told her. "Do you have a fallback plan?"
Fast forward to May 2. She burst into his classroom, interrupting a lecture. She was jumping up and down, a piece of paper in her hand shaking with excitement. It was an acceptance letter to James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.
They hugged so hard he lifted her off the ground. Students clapped and gave her high-fives.
Casel told the class: "That's a kid that just had her dreams come true."
Colvin, who turns 18 next month, said she has wanted to go to Down Under since elementary school when she found out penguins live in Australia. She first wanted to study zoology, but in middle school she learned there are more job opportunities in marine biology.
Colvin lived in New Port Richey until 2003, when her mom died after an accidental overdose of pain medication. She was 8. "Everything fell to pieces," she said.
For about a year afterward, the family moved around west Pasco, including a stint in a hotel. She, her father and the youngest of her three older brothers finally settled with her grandmother in Hudson. "If anything, it made me more independent," she said.
Casel notes that about 75 percent of Hudson High students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Many students' parents didn't go to college.
"She's going to break out of this mold," he said. "She's going to make her own way."
Colvin graduates June 1. The day after, she will visit an older brother in Wyoming. Her flight leaves for Australia in mid July before a weeklong orientation. College begins July 23.
James Cook University's main campus is located in the far northeast corner of Australia. It's on the coast, but also close to mountains and the rain forest. The school touts the area as "one of the best places in the world to study whole organism biology and ecology."
She plans to graduate in three years, then she hopes to land a job protecting Australia's 1,250 miles of coral reefs. Perhaps she'll get a zoology degree in Africa, where she can study the big cats. A personal goal is to earn a doctorate degree. Colvin jokes that she might turn into a "professional student."
"I'm not totally sure what I want to do with my life, but I'm pretty sure Australia is a good place to start," she said.
Casel connected her with Pasco environmental education teacher Mark Butler, who also teaches scuba classes. She has two more classes, along with saltwater and freshwater check-out dives, before she's certified.
At a recent class at the Spring Hill YMCA, Butler walked Colvin and another student though dozens of tips — don't hold your breath while surfacing, don't bring cash or car keys on a dive. But the best part was strapping on a tank and a snorkel and getting in the water. She learned a "backwards roll" dive and how to remain at an constant depth underwater using a weight belt and an air regulator.
A tall and lanky blond, Colvin was on the track team until about a year ago when she developed asthma. (She said she's determined not to let that interfere with her diving.) Most of her free time is spent behind a book. Her favorite reading spot is on a blanket out in her back yard, where she often lays for hours.
Some favorite authors: Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen. Like many kids her age, she's read all seven Harry Potter books, several times.
This past week, she finished taking the last of five AP tests. Those exams are graded on a 1-5 scale, and most universities accept a 3 for college credit. She thinks she'll score a 5 on government, microeconomics and psychology. She expects to earn a 4 on macroeconomics and calculus. Her standards aren't impossibly high. Colvin is ranked ninth out of 183 seniors.
Despite those grades, her 19-year-old brother Rod Colvin said he occasionally teases her for being gullible. "One of her friends told her they don't have marshmallows in Australia, and she believed them," he said.
But he wasn't surprised when he learned she was accepted to study in Australia. "She's been talking about it for years," he said. "She's a pretty determined person."
Her dad, Rodney Colvin, is happy for his daughter, but he isn't thrilled about her leaving. A trip home will include more than 30 hours of travel time, and a one-way ticket costs $1,700.
"I don't like it," he said. "My baby's leaving me. I might be able to talk to her all the time on the phone, but that's not the same as having her here."
Casel recalled a conversation from a few weeks ago during lunch. He and Tiffany began talking politics, then jumped to history and economics and a bit of psychology. He stopped her. "You realize we just had a college-level conversation," he told her.
"It was almost shocking to have a conversation like that with a kid," he said. "She's just a sponge. She wants to know everything and how the whole thing works."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.