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U-Va.'s One-Year Wonder
Teen Graduates Early, With a Double Major

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

And you thought your kid was smart.

David Banh, an 18-year-old from Annandale, just graduated from the University of Virginia in one year. With a double major.

His college education, almost entirely covered by a patchwork of scholarships, cost him about $200. And he sold back textbooks for more than that. Now he's starting graduate study at U-Va. with a research grant.

So at this point, he's technically running a profit.

He's upending two trends: Most students take longer to graduate than you might think -- about two-thirds of freshmen at four-year colleges in Virginia manage to finish within six years. And tuition gets more expensive every year.

He was helped by the fact that U-Va., as a public school, costs a lot less than most private colleges. And that the university accepted many of his Advanced Placement credits from high school; many of the most selective private schools wouldn't. As it was, he doubled up on course credits and took more physics over the summer to finish his second major.

Many professors would like students to explore and experiment in college rather than cram in as much as possible at top speed.

Still, "I've never seen anything like that before," said Donald Ramirez, professor and associate chairman of mathematics at U-Va.

"He's one of a kind," said Vicki Doff, his counselor at the competitive magnet Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. "Absolutely amazing kid academically, incredibly persistent, bright, focused and determined. His academic record was second to none. I've been here over 20 years, and I've never had a student take the course load he did in his years here."

She used to worry he was doing too much. "And he usually proved me wrong."

Banh was born and grew up in Fairfax, the eldest son of parents who came to the United States from Vietnam in the 1980s.

Even in elementary school, he was trying to get ahead. His bus driver in kindergarten told his mom that the boy would do problems or talk about lessons on the bus with the other children, Kim Banh said. In second grade, he told her he was bored and wanted harder math problems.

His parents pushed him. He liked learning new things rather than repeating what he already knew. He had a sort of low-key competition with a smart girl at his school. His uncle helped tutor him. "It was nice to be a year ahead" in math, he said. "It made me feel special when I was little."

By eighth grade, he said, most of the motivation came from himself, not his parents. By his second year in high school, he was taking three AP classes.

"I sort of got a little addicted to it," he said. At TJ, he was taking more AP classes than any other sophomore that year, so, he figured, why not do it again next year? "I took six the year after that and figured I may as well take a bunch of exams the next year as well."

Meanwhile, he had mastered bridge -- yes, the card game -- competed in tournaments all over and ran the school club, which doubled in size.

"I loosened my schedule up senior year a lot," he said, meaning he took fewer classes.

What? Why?

"So I could maximize the amount of time I had to attempt five or six AP exams outside of the ones I was taking."

His mom said she is proud but sometimes worried about the track he was on. "He didn't have time to do a lot of stuff," she said. "He [would] just go home, do homework, take another extra homework and do it. He ate dinner for 15 minutes or ate dinner still looking at a book.

"I said, 'No, I do not want this.' But I guess it's helped him [in] that he believes he can do things. That's the most important to me."

Banh went to U-Va. with the equivalent of 72 college credits. It takes 120 to graduate, and the school requires that at least half come from U-Va. classes.

The typical course load is 15 credits a semester.

His first semester, he took 23 credits and found he had more time than he did in high school to spend with friends, playing games (video games or board games, he clarified, not drinking games). Or just hanging out.

"I don't feel like I missed out," he said. "Most of college was euphoria."

He had some low points, especially late in April when the workload for his 37 credits seemed crushing, and his grades started to slip. (To some Bs.)

The best part was when he finished his last exam and knew he'd done it: No matter what, he had a college degree. "If bad things happened, I could go out and make some decent living for myself."

The most important thing he learned in class, in math, was to construct a logical, coherent argument. And the most important thing he learned in college, he said, "is to value the people you spend time with, your friends."

Now he's a grad student. His research project, with fifth-year doctoral candidate Lorena Bociu, is on the stabilization of pressure in an acoustic chamber -- as if to reduce the noise in a music chamber or lower the pressure in an aircraft cabin -- and involves using mathematical equations to -- well, you get the idea.

He expects to finish his master's degree this academic year -- why wouldn't he?

Then a doctorate in math is possible (especially if he feels that he wants to stay in college).

More likely he'll go to law school.

At night, while working.

He wants to be a patent attorney. Growing up with parents who arrived in the United States with very little and now work at the post office and in real estate, money was not a problem exactly, but . . . he'd like to have a career that ensures he doesn't have to think about money anymore.

He's not super competitive, he said. But sometimes it's good to have someone, or something, to compete with.

"Everyone," he said, "needs a little more motivation."

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