The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 12-year-old is off to the Ivy League. ‘It’s a challenge to keep him challenged,’ his dad says.

12-year-old Jeremy Shuler may be the youngest student ever to attend Cornell University when he starts classes there this fall. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

When he was three months old, Jeremy Shuler’s parents were surprised to find he seemed to pay close attention to things for so long. Instead of the seconds they expected from an infant, he would watch closely for half an hour. And it seemed the things that fascinated him most were letters and numbers — they joked that he sat through a whole video to get to the credits.

When he was 15 months old, Jeremy knew the alphabet and found letters and numbers everywhere — in his pasta, in clouds, in stars, in the patterns of marble tiles. It was hard to give him a bath, because he kept writing letters and numbers with the shower hose at bathtime.

When he was a year and a half old, he asked his mother about an email she was typing to a friend in Seoul, and she off-handedly showed him letters in Korean. The next day he was combining consonant and vowel sounds to make syllables. And he was reading a book in Korean.

Something had clicked. By the time he was 2, Jeremy could easily read both Korean and English on his own.

After that, his father Andy Shuler said, they realized, “This is going to be different.”

When he was 12, Jeremy Shuler got accepted to college.

Jeremy starts classes at Cornell University next week, perhaps the youngest student ever to attend, the school’s historian Corey Earle said. Earle has found records of 14-year-old freshmen, and 18-year-old graduates, but none younger. Some of the eight Ivy League schools don’t track students by age or don’t release that information, and others did not have records of any students having attended as young as Jeremy.

He’s excited and nervous to start — nervous that he’ll get lost navigating the large campus in upstate New York, excited for the classes. He loved sitting in on a physics class when he was on his college tour.

“I think I’ll really enjoy being at Cornell,” he said. “I’ve been preparing for college for a long time.”

Time is relative. As Jeremy sped through the typical developmental milestones as a baby, his parents quickly learned that the child-rearing books they had gotten weren’t going to be much help.

Jeremy was studying pre-calculus by his fifth birthday. He also was reading “The Lord of the Rings.” He swiped his mother’s copy of “Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics” from her bookshelf and read it overnight and, ever since, has revered the 18th-century Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, Carl Friedrich Gauss, and Isaac Newton, whom he particularly admired for the way he used math to study nature.

It seemed odd to enroll him in kindergarten.

Gifted-and-talented programs and charter schools seemed to miss the mark, too, by a wide margin.

Harrey Shuler had a doctorate in aerospace engineering and was working on her post-doc at the University of Texas at Austin — that’s where she and Andy Shuler met — but she decided her career might have to wait.

In an odd way, Andy Shuler said, it was like his own mother, who stepped in to create and provide a personalized education for his sister with Down Syndrome. Sometimes standard just doesn’t work.

Harrey Shuler felt confident that she could teach math and science at a high-school level. Mostly, she didn’t teach though, she said: Jeremy was so happy and so interested in things, such a voracious reader of anything from encyclopedias to math books, that she acted more as a guide, answering questions.

It’s hard to hold him back, his father said, because he just dives into everything. “His brain is very good at making connections between things that most people might not see,” Andy Shuler said.

When Jeremy was 8, his father’s job took the family to England for a year. While Andy Shuler worked, Harrey and Jeremy would plan their next trip. Jeremy would study the language and culture of Milan, or Brussels, or Glasgow, or Wales. He easily picked up geography and history and languages.

“We gave up Wikipedia,” Andy Shuler said. “We would just ask Jeremy, ‘What is the capital of Chad?’ and he would tell us. He’s much smarter than either of us, for sure.”

Their son also has a great imagination, he added. Sometimes they would ask a question, listen to his answer, and say, “Is that really true?’

“‘Of course not!'” Jeremy would say, giggling.

Eventually they returned home to Texas. “After we got back,” his mother said, “we got back on track with his schooling.”

They worried he was too isolated from other children, and encouraged him to try different activities. The only ones that really clicked were a math circle, in which older students gathered to discuss theorems and problems, and math camp. He didn’t hold back. “He loves people,” his dad said. “He will go up and talk to anyone.”

When he was 10, he had reached the limits of what his parents and high-school classes could teach him.

So he took the SAT. His parents were very curious: How would he do on an objective measure?

He scored better than 99.6 percent of those who took the test that year.

He took SAT subject tests, and he aced those, too, getting perfect 800s in math, physics and chemistry, and 750s in world history and Latin. He took AP tests in calculus BC, chemistry, physics C: mechanics, physics C: electricity and magnetism, statistics, microeconomics, and macroeconomics. He got the highest score on each one, earning him a “Scholar with Distinction” recognition from the College Board.

But he was still so young he couldn’t legally create an online college application. And he didn’t have a high-school diploma or transcript.

So his parents enrolled Jeremy in the Texas Tech University Independent School District, an online program that allowed him to travel with his family when his father’s job required it, earn credit for things he had already learned through exams, and build a quantifiable record of academic achievement.

“I learned a lot of new things, including essay writing and writing in general, poems, short stories — I had to write my own science-fiction story,” Jeremy said. “It was an opportunity to be a more well-rounded person, and get interested in things that weren’t math and science stuff.

“As far as course content, I really loved the web design course.” (Since learning programming, he has been working on a map generator, adding oceans, islands, plants, fine-tuning it, for fun.)

And he loved graduation. “It was cool seeing all of the other students graduating alongside me and meeting all of the TTUISD people.”

But Jeremy is still 12. He likes fishing, he likes swimming, he likes Minecraft, he likes “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” and “Divergent.”

“When Daddy lets me use his computer, I play Civilization, which is a strategy game,” he said.

The gap between his intelligence and his maturity level — which his mom thinks is pretty typical for a boy his age — has been one of their biggest challenges as parents, Andy Shuler said.

Intellectually, he was ready for college classes, clearly.

“It’s a challenge to keep him challenged,” his dad said. But what about the rest of the experience?

One place stood out: Cornell University, where his father got his engineering degree, where his grandfather is a professor, with a campus not far from a branch of the company where Andy Shuler works.

Jeremy applied through the regular admissions process, and he had a video interview with two administrators. He was accepted this spring into Cornell Engineering, with the requirement that he continue to live with his parents.

His parents were extremely grateful that a college was willing to take a chance on a 12-year-old, his dad said.

Cornell Engineering Dean Lance Collins said in a news release that the school believes Jeremy is ready.

“He is a very advanced student for his age who already has demonstrated an incredible ability to learn at the collegiate level,” Collins said. “While this is highly unusual, we feel that with the strong support of his parents — who will be moving here to provide him a place to live and study — and his unusual talents and thirst for knowledge, he will be able to thrive as an engineering student and take advantage of all that Cornell has to offer.”

Jeremy was very excited. Because he has visited the campus before with his family, and went to math camp there, it’s a relatively familiar place. He’s eager to make friends; he gets along well with older people. He’s even looking forward to the food: “A lot of it was like, a pizza and a few apples,” he said, giggling.

His father immediately applied for a transfer to work for Lockheed Martin in New York, and the family sold its house in Texas and moved to Ithaca.

Jeremy is planning to major in applied and engineering physics with a minor in math. He’ll be taking physics in mechanics and special relativity, introduction to computing with MATLAB, multivariable calculus, and either intermediate Latin or an introduction to linguistics, depending on how well he does on his placement test.

Some of that content will be familiar to him, but he will have a lot to learn: How to be in school with other people, how to find his way around. His mom plans to spend the first week or two helping him navigate campus until he’s used to walking to class on his own.

“It’s a big campus, it’s a whole new world,” his dad said. “I know it’s the right choice, it’s the only way he can be challenged and grow. But I still have my worries. He’s not going to have the normal college experience — all the good and bad and change that can come with that — but I think he can make some friends, be part of a study group, be part of the community.”

Andy Shuler remembers his own sense of awe when he got to campus and met so many smart people. Jeremy will have to get used to not being the smartest person in the class, he said, but that should be good for him.

“It’s a bit of a change,” Jeremy said. “But I like that!”

In the meantime this summer, Jeremy has been working on a project that started when he picked up a booklet from a radar seminar his father attended. Working with one of the algorithms used to encode signals based on prime numbers, he came up with a new code that uses a subset of prime numbers to create a simpler algorithm that is potentially more secure.

Jeremy’s dad is wondering how college, with its vast range of courses and possibilities, will change him. His parents expect him to go on to get a doctorate and have a career in academia, teaching and doing research. But he’s so young — who knows what his future holds?

“This has been a journey of surprises,” Andy Shuler said. “I don’t know. He’s going to change. He’s going to be a teenager soon, that’s change enough no matter where you are.

“I’m just looking forward to his first day of classes. I think he’s going to come back with new ideas in his head — that’s what I love to see.”