Prodigy, 13, claims age discrimination by UConn
STORRS, Conn.—Even at 13, Colin Carlson believes he's running out of time.
Colin is a sophomore at the University of Connecticut, seeking a bachelor's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology and another in environmental studies. But he's been knocked off course by the university's rejection of his request to take a class that includes summer field work in South Africa.
He and his mother say university officials told them he is too young for the overseas course. So he's filed an age discrimination claim with the university and U.S. Department of Education, which is investigating.
"I'm losing time in my four-year plan for college," he said. "They're upsetting the framework of one of my majors."
Michael Kirk, a spokesman for UConn, would not comment on Colin's case. But he said that generally, safety is the university's first concern when travel is involved.
The university would not let Colin enroll, even after his mother, Jessica Offir, offered to release UConn from liability and accompany her son as a chaperone at her own expense, she and Colin said.
Colin was 2 or 3 when he began reading on his own, Offir said, and was up to "Harry Potter" by the time he was 4. An only child, he has faced trouble before because of his brainpower. His kindergarten teacher would not allow him to take books with him at nap time, and he was ridiculed by other children who fired math questions at him to entertain themselves, she said.
"You have no idea what kids like this experience," Offir said.
Colin skipped two grades in public school and began taking psychology, history and other courses at UConn when he was 9. He graduated from Stanford University Online High School at age 11, and soon after enrolled full-time at UConn.
"I'm actually like any other student, he said. "The faculty and students have better things to do than worry about a 13-year-old holding his own."
Over the years, Colin, who said he is fascinated by natural ecosystems, has traveled extensively. He has gone sea kayaking off Nova Scotia and Ecuador, hiked in numerous national parks and, with his mother, has traveled across the U.S. by car.
"It's important to have a very wide world view," he said. "Biology is fundamentally about the diversity of life, with a focus across the planet."
Colin says the course in conservation work in South Africa would have been critical to his studies and the rejection has forced him to change his thesis plans.
He said that once he's completed his undergraduate studies, he wants a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology and a degree in environmental law for a career in conservation science. He intends to earn the two degrees by age 22.
Carl Schlichting, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who has taught Colin in two courses, said he is not only an outstanding student, but is unusually certain for a 13-year-old about where he is headed professionally.
"He has very strong ideas about what he wants to do," he said. "His self-confidence is very high. It's a very unusual package to see the intellect and confidence at that age."
To be eligible to study abroad, students may not be on university probation or academic probation and must have earned a grade point average of at least a "C" -- no problem for Colin, who's an honor student with a near-perfect 3.9 GPA.
The study abroad office and faculty member leading the trip ultimately decide who may go, Kirk said.
Brian Whalen, president and chief executive officer of the Forum on Education Abroad, a nonprofit member association of 400 schools, agencies and other groups, said he has not heard of another case where a college student Colin's age had tried to study abroad. When accepted into a college or university, a student generally is assumed to have access to academic programs, he said.
Although Colin was barred from the South African field trip course, he will participate in a National Science Foundation-funded research group that also will take him to South Africa to study plant ecology.
Colin and his mother say they would be satisfied if the university ensures that the NSF-funded research trip and a seminar fulfill the academic requirements of the course he originally sought. They also have asked that $5,000 in stipend and expenses be reimbursed.
Their lawyer, Michael Agranoff, said he wants to negotiate a solution. He and a lawyer for the state have scheduled their first meeting Friday, he said.
Colin says he would prefer not to have to fight, but he has no choice.
"When people are drawing lines in the sand, you're going to have to cross them," he said. "I'm not going back."