NMJC’s Youngest Students Ever Graduate with Honors
5/22/2009 12:32:57 a.m. - Hobbs, NM. Graduating from college is not unusual in and of itself. However, graduating from college at the ages of 14 and 15 is unusual, especially when the graduates are a sister and a brother who were home-schooled.
On Friday, May 8, 2009, Jessica Anne McGraw, 14, and John Stephen McGraw II, 15, received their Associate of Science Degrees from New Mexico Junior College during the Spring Commencement exercises at the Lea County Event Center.
John, who graduated with a 3.68 grade point average and plans to study neurosurgery, insists that any determined student could accomplish exactly what he and his sister have. "We're not geniuses or child prodigies; we're just hard workers," he said. In spite of a rigorous and "very dedicated" study routine that frequently lasted until late at night, he describes their college experience as "great." "We received all the benefits of a college education without the distractions and negative influences of high school," he said. "In our case, it couldn't have been better."
"This really has been a great opportunity for us," added Jessica, who graduated with a 4.0 grade point average and plans to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. "We're still pretty amazed. It's not that often someone our age gets to graduate from college."
When asked what challenges the two faced when they first entered college at the relatively tender ages of 12 and 13, the pair insists there really weren't any because their professors and the other students were so accepting of them. "The other students were friendly, and all our professors were extremely helpful and very open to the idea of home-schooled students, especially since there are more and more of us on campus nowadays," said Jessica. "In fact," she said, "we noticed our professors were really helpful to all the students, so we didn't feel like we received special treatment because of our age."
Their professors would undoubtedly agree that the two didn't need special treatment. Dr. Vic Berner, professor of chemistry and astronomy, described both as "excellent students." At NMJC's annual Outstanding Academic Achievement Recognition ceremony in April, Jessica was awarded the college's top awards in Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics. Both are members of Mu Alpha Theta, the Math Honor Society, and both are also members of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, with John serving as Treasurer and Jessica as Secretary.
Berner also felt that both students possessed the foundational traits necessary for success. "They were always on time, sat up front, and were eager to learn. They actually appeared to like each other and get along -- even though they're siblings. There was obviously competition going on between them, but they do help each other to a certain point," he said. "I wish I had a classroom full of Johns and Jessicas."
According to Jessica, it was actually the competition between them that helped them succeed. "Going through college together was a good thing because we work well together," she said. "While we are competitive, it motivates us and drives us. It wound up helping a lot, especially since we took all our classes together."
The two also credit their family's strong emphasis on education as a source of motivation. Their mother Amanda, a graduate of Vanderbilt University, and their father John, a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, both serve as inspiration and driving force behind their success. "Our Dad taught us how to study and learn early on," said Jessica. "Later, he just gave us the books and material we needed to learn, although he was always there to help explain if we needed it. But mostly he just had us discover it for ourselves. That's how he's teaching our little sister and brother, too, who are 8 and 9. They'll probably be at NMJC in a few years, too."
Their father John was also the one who agreed that the two could try college if they wished. After completing their high school degrees at the ages of 12 and 13, the sister and brother decided they could save years of time by going immediately to college -- if they could enroll at such a young age.
Enter Dr. John Gratton, Vice President of Instruction at NMJC, who was charged with determining whether the two could even be admitted. "In past years," he said, "colleges and universities were restricted to working with students who had reached their 16th birthday or had completed their sophomore year in high school. However, the New Mexico Higher Education Department eventually approved a measure whereby colleges could admit students younger than sixteen as long as the colleges maintained a consistent policy of admitting these students.
"John and Jessica and their parents approached NMJC in 2007 with a goal of taking several college courses," he said. "Upon testing them, we determined, even at their relatively young age, that they had already reached college level readiness in math, reading, and writing and thus were approved to start college-level coursework.
"The accomplishments of these two students are remarkable," he continued, "in that they have excelled in every college course, have attained an educational standard that qualified them for our national honors fraternity Phi Theta Kappa, and have graduated with honors at an age when most students are just starting to think about college. Although it is still rare to witness this type of accomplishment, I believe the future will provide more and more success stories such as John and Jessica's. It's been my pleasure to work closely with these two students, and I hope others will follow their example and start their college education early in life."
For any other students who are interested in attempting college at a young age, John and Jessica have some straightforward advice: "If you're willing to put in some hard work, it can be a great, very positive experience. But it won't be handed to you on a silver platter. The good news is that you don't have to be special to do it. We weren't. Anyone can excel if they're willing to put hard work into it and commit to it. If you're willing to put your mind to it and work hard, it can happen. And New Mexico Junior College is a great place to do it. Thanks to President McCleery, Dr. Gratton, and all the faculty and staff, we had a wonderful experience. We're not sure which university we'll go to next, but NMJC prepared us well for that next step in our education. We just hope others will make the same commitment because it's definitely worth it."