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13-Year-Old Woodbridge Prodigy Enters College at George Mason University

As far as they can tell, said Paige's parents, Tony and Pam Epler, their daughter is the youngest girl in the United States to get a high school diploma. However, no organization specifically tracks that data across the country, said Matt Bowden, communications coordinator at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth. Bowden said that despite a lot of anecdotal data, it's a hard fact to pin down, especially because some students who work at an accelerated level skip high school and land in college as young as 8.

Still, he said, Paige has made a remarkable accomplishment.

"This is not an ordinary achievement," Bowden said. "It is certainly impressive, and anytime a student achieves at this level, it is a special situation."

Paige's early graduation didn't surprise her family, who, Pam Epler said, watched her excel from a very early age. Paige was reading spice labels at age 1 and a medical encyclopedia by the time she was 2, Pam Epler said. Now the girl who has never been taught in a traditional classroom setting can finish an "Encyclopedia Brown" book and solve the mystery in 15 minutes, Paige said.

Paige did her elementary and middle school work via the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, another distance-learning program in which she worked out of a makeshift classroom in her parents' Lake Ridge house. At age 9, she moved to OU High School, where she completed 23 units, again from home, to get her diploma. Oklahoma school officials said about 280 people complete the diploma program yearly.

"The real benefit of the program is you don't have to sit in class and you don't get bogged down with busywork," Pam Epler said, noting that her daughter tends to breeze through most assignments. "You can work at your own pace."

While hurtling through her school curriculum, Paige still found time for other passions. She began playing violin when she was 6. She was a featured violinist at a luncheon for Obama before Inauguration Day and played with the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra.

"I picked the violin because it was a challenge for me," Paige said. "I love to play, and I never really get nervous, just excited to perform."

Violin isn't Paige's only passion. After visiting the National Aquarium in Baltimore about five years ago, Paige said, she became fascinated with sharks and wanted to do something to help the endangered species.

Paige created a Save the Sharks exhibit and, after making a few calls, set it up at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum during its ecology day. Impressed with her PowerPoint presentation, six-foot shark model and shark classification maze, Smithsonian officials endorsed her exhibit and passed her name along to other museums where she has also presented her findings, Pam Epler said.

Paige, who is 5 feet tall and weighs about 85 pounds, proceeded to make the presentation to a congressional hearing committee and to the staff at the Baltimore aquarium. "The Early Show" on CBS also used her as its "shark expert" during a live feed when she was 9, a fitting role for a girl who has taken the time to memorize the Latin names for 400 sharks.

"I'm just fascinated with sharks and really proud of myself for doing something" to help them, Paige said. "I don't like to just stand by; I want to get things done."

Although Paige sometimes chooses studying over play dates, she said, she still likes to have fun with friends and her 5-year-old dog, Cuddles.

Paige is a "huge" Pokemon and Super Mario Brothers fan, she said, while gallivanting over to the life-size cutouts of Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach in her family's basement theater.

"I love Wii," she said. "That is what really helps me connect to my friends."

Paige said she prefers books to movies but will rarely turn down a chance to play sports. Over the years, she has tackled everything from Little League and soccer to karate and flag football, in which she is "a really good quarterback," she said. Now, she can be found on the George Mason campus in Fairfax County, throwing a football with the college boys.

Paige, who is taking English, math and astronomy at GMU, said she likes the college scene because people there are "engaged in class and are really there to learn." With a passion for babies and science, Paige said, she plans to be a pediatrician one day and move to a "classy" area such as Georgetown or Alexandria.

"I always saw potential in every kid, and it is just a matter of them seeing it in themselves," said Pam Epler, who was a Woodbridge Senior High School teacher while her husband was in the Air Force. "As a parent, I am glad Paige can see her potential and has excelled. . . . We're really proud of her."

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