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Sakina Rizvi was 17 when she graduated from her program studying the history of religion at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus. She has started a master in education and is hoping to wrap up a PhD by age 25.

J.P. MOCZULSKI

Sakina Rizvi spent much of this past summer travelling around the Middle East on pilgrimage, visiting mosques on this much-needed break. "It’s been nice to just discover and explore," she says. "I’ve been thinking about the greater purpose I have in doing all I’m doing."

That has entailed whizzing through a four-year university degree in three years, studying the history of religion.

Before that, she completed high school in just two years. Because she had skipped Grade 1, Ms. Rizvi was just 14 when she got her high-school diploma and 17 when she wrapped up her program at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus last spring.

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Ms. Rizvi, who is now 18 and lives with her family in Caledon, Ont., is one of a few very young students who attend university. "It's a rare occurrence" to see students doing their degrees this young, says Salvatore Mendaglio, a professor of education at the University of Calgary.

Statistics Canada reported in 2010 that the median age of university students is 22.8 years and 24.8 years at graduation. The latest Statistics Canada numbers indicate the average age of students enrolled in postsecondary programs leading to a credential (including college) was 24.

Once at university, these rarities in the student population can face unique challenges around engaging in student life, logistics and mapping out their futures.

THE GIFTED MYSTIQUE

The National Association for Gifted Children in the United States defines being gifted as “when their ability is significantly above the norm for their age.” The National Center for Educational Statistics tallied the gifted rate at 6.7 per cent of children in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. However, Mr. Mendaglio thinks true giftedness is more rare and hovers closer to 1 per cent.

But, he says smarts aren't enough to propel such children into university early.

"Intelligence plus effort equals a level of success," Mr. Mendaglio says. Many gifted children don't need to work hard to get excellent grades, so they don't develop strong time-management skills early on, and don't necessarily excel at university, much less get there early. Meanwhile, they don't always develop empathy and self-awareness – what we now call emotional intelligence – that helps people to analyze what teachers want, to work well in groups and to land jobs.

However, a certain subset such as Ms.Rizvi have the brains, drive and well-roundedness to truly excel. She may have developed her work skills when she skipped Grade 1, and had to sit down with her mother and work through some of the basics from that all-important grade.

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Many just want to do well. “Some of these kids, by age 10, they know they want to be a medical doctor. They get focused,” Mr. Mendaglio says.

Meanwhile, public-school systems in most Canadian provinces discourage fast-tracking. "Most schools don't allow grade skipping because they fear it will have a negative effect on the social and emotional development of those children," Mr. Mendaglio adds.

Those who pull ahead often do a mix of summer school, online courses and advanced-placement programs. Or, they go to private school or study in a different jurisdiction. Ms. Rizvi skipped a grade while living in the United States – she was born there – and then attended an Islamic high school that followed an ability-based learning model, which lets students move through the curriculum at their own pace.

"It assumes that age isn't the only measure of your intelligence or your ability," Ms.Rizvi says.

SOCIAL BARRIERS

Mr. Mendaglio says he has spoken to many adults who went to university at a young age. "The top thing they say is, ‘I wasn’t able to go drinking with my fellow students.'’' Also, an age gap of even just a few years feels like a lot to people in their late teens and twenties. "It’s hard to connect."

Ms. Rizvi had no interest in pub nights, and preferred to spend her weekend nights with family, and hung out mostly with high-school friends. "For me, going to university involves friends and having a social life, but it wasn't the main priority for me," she says. But she did make new friends at university, and still keeps in touch with them. "I never openly tell my age," she admits, so no one treated her differently.

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But not every underage university student shrugs off the social age divide.

“Developmentally, when you’re 15 or so, you have this strong need to belong,” Mr. Mendaglio says. Such students are at risk of becoming socially isolated and even depressed. If they do get invited to a party, they risk overdoing it to impress their new peer group.

Other, more practical issues can set young students apart. While many of Ms. Rizvi’s classmates lived on their own or commuted by car, she was too young to even get a licence for most of the time she was at university, and felt grateful to get a ride every day from her mother.

Another logistical issue is the fact that young university students and their families have a lot less time to save for tuition.

Ms. Rizvi says her parents seemed to know from the moment she skipped Grade 1 that she would fast-track, and were financially prepared. It also helps that such students often garner scholarships: Ms. Rizvi got two, including one for getting the highest grades in her program at university.

AFTER THE DEGREE

For unusually young grads, jobs can continue to be an issue. They are accepting degrees while their peers are doing their first stints as camp counsellors or fast-food employees. Who will hire them in a professional setting?

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"It might be a source of pride to a company to have an 18-year-old engineer," speculates Mr. Mendaglio. In truth, most of these bright teens end up doing graduate work or professional programs. It becomes an advantage to be a fully-qualified doctor, lawyer or academic by your mid-20s.

That is what Ms. Rizvi is doing: She has just started her master in education at U of T's St. George campus, and is simultaneously doing an online masters in Islamic studies. She plans on doing her PhD after that, and hopes to wrap up her education by age 25.

After that, she would like to work in education, perhaps in academia or as a consultant, and is interested in advocating for more fair access to education.

Already, she has strong ideas about learning, and about society’s assumptions about learners, particularly when it comes to age. "I have this ability to advance faster. I don’t need to limit myself for the sake of others and for the official rules and boundaries.

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