Age May Be Barrier For 13-Year-Old College Student

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Colin Carlson is a 13-year-old college student studying the environment and evolutionary biology. i i

Colin Carlson is a 13-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut. Colin's age had not been an issue until he tried to enroll in a summer class in South Africa and the university would not allow him to do so. Craig LeMoult for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Craig LeMoult for NPR
Colin Carlson is a 13-year-old college student studying the environment and evolutionary biology.

Colin Carlson is a 13-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut. Colin's age had not been an issue until he tried to enroll in a summer class in South Africa and the university would not allow him to do so.

Craig LeMoult for NPR

Colin Carlson is 13 years old and a double major at the University of Connecticut with a 3.9 GPA. His college experience has been a lot like any other student's, but now he says he's become a victim of age discrimination.

Colin says university officials told him he can't enroll in a class in South Africa because of his age.

'A Different Path'

Colin doesn't look like your average college student. He's thin with a mess of red hair, glasses and braces. He's wearing a crown he just made out of twigs, decorated with a feather he found. Walking along a lake on UConn's campus in Storrs, he spots some shells in the grass.

"They're zebra mussel shells from the looks of it," he says. "And they will be going straight into my shell collection."

Colin started out in a private elementary school and then spent a year in a public school. He learned everything much faster than the other students, so he started attending high school online from home. And by the time he was 12, Colin was enrolled as a full-time undergraduate at UConn.

He's busy in student environmental organizations, including the eco-house dorm, though he still lives at home with his family.

"I dread spring break," he says. "I dread summer break." Colin says he loves academic work. "Not being able to work on anything academic when I was in public school was really, really nerve-wracking for me," he says while trying to avoid an encroaching spider.

It's a bit weird that he doesn't like spiders, because he is studying the environment and evolutionary biology. His research focuses on how species adapt to different environments.

"It's kind of fitting," he says. "I'm going a different path than most people, and I study how plants and animals can take different paths than they usually do."

Age As A Liability?

He says until now, the university has mostly treated him like any other student. But that changed when he tried to enroll in a class called African Field Ecology, which involves a summer research trip to South Africa. Colin says university officials told him he can't take the class because he is too young.

"I'm at just as much risk as anybody else," he says "And I shouldn't be excluded on the basis of a two-digit number."

So he's filed a complaint with the university, as well as a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. He says it's a civil rights issue.

"The university isn't able to comment on issues of pending litigation or claims," says UConn spokesman Michael Kirk. "However, just generally speaking, when it comes to study abroad, student safety is and has to be our first concern."

UConn offered Colin a grant to take part in a study abroad program in Kenya or Tanzania, which is not affiliated with the university.

"If their argument is that it's not safe for a 13-year-old to travel abroad," says Colin's mother, Jessica Offir, "how is it possibly safer for him to go to Kenya on his own with nobody he knows?"

Offir has offered to go to South Africa with the UConn group. She says she'll sign a form saying the university isn't liable for Colin's safety because she would be there.

"I don't want them to be liable for my child," she says. "I want them to educate my child."

Escaping Notoriety

Some lawyers say UConn might still be liable if something went wrong in South Africa — even with Offir there. Colin has found another research group that's headed to South Africa this summer, and he's working on getting grants to go with them. He says he doesn't like the attention he's getting because of all this.

"I don't want to be famous," he says. "I don't want to stick out. I want to pursue what I want to pursue, without having everybody staring at me and thinking about me. And at this point, I'm just trying to make sure that nothing stands in the way of that."

Experts on profoundly gifted children say these kids regularly overcome the barriers they face by proving themselves to be capable of handling things like going to college.

Colin is looking forward to the day that his age will no longer be a barrier. He says he can't wait to be just another middle-aged biologist.

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