After starting college at age 11, Smithfield resident to become youngest URI graduate

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KINGSTON, R.I. – May 14, 2009 – Valerie Sahakian took her first college courses when she was just 11 years old. On May 17, as a mature 18-year old, she will receive a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Rhode Island as the year’s youngest graduate.

A resident of Smithfield, Sahakian said that she was surprisingly comfortable entering that first biology classroom at Rhode Island College.

“The age difference between me and the other students didn’t really bother me,” she said. “Until that point, I hadn’t really been challenged in school, so I thrived on it. It was really enjoyable to learn something new, and it was exciting to have a faster pace.”

Sahakian had been enrolled in public and private schools through sixth grade, when her parents began to homeschool her. Soon after, RIC biology professor Lloyd Matsumoto introduced her to college coursework to see if she was ready for it. She was.

“For me, it was a drive to learn and a desire for more information and more learning experiences,” Sahakian said. “I wasn’t really satisfied with school before, because I didn’t enjoy it when my curiosity was suppressed. My biggest concern with my first courses was taking notes and making sure I had all the information, because I hadn’t had to take notes before.”

She quickly fell in love with math, a subject she had always enjoyed working on at home with her father, an engineer. “Math was something that I always felt comfortable with, something I could always fall back on. It wasn’t always easy, but it was worth the effort.”

When she enrolled full-time at the University of Rhode Island in the fall of 2007, she also took an interest in the study of geology. “I’ve always loved earth sciences and nature,” she said. “My brother and I would take off into the woods, and things in the natural world fascinate me. It’s interesting to me how everything in nature is all so dynamic and fits together.”

In addition to her URI coursework, Sahakian went on backpacking and climbing trips with the University’s Outing Club, participated in an Irish step dancing club, and enjoyed swimming and other forms of dancing.

As a tutor at the URI Academic Enhancement Center, she also learned that she enjoyed teaching. She led math study sessions for students needing extra assistance, prepared lesson plans, and guided group problem-solving activities.

With her undergraduate education behind her, Sahakian is looking forward to enrolling in a doctoral program next fall at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, to study geophysics.

“It was a really hard decision, but Scripps has a great reputation, the people I met there were really nice, and it will be great going to a new place on a different coast,” Sahakian said. “I like to stay stimulated and have new things to think about, so I was looking for a discipline that would keep me challenged, and geophysics combines my interest in math with my interest in nature and geology.”

While she is uncertain what her long-term future holds, Sahakian expects it will be a combination of research and teaching. Whatever she decides, there is little doubt that the jumpstart she got on her undergraduate education – and the success she found there — bodes well for the next stages of her career.