Young man on campus

For 13-year-old college student, it's all adding up

NEEDHAM – For most of his life, 13 year-old Roland Liu has been an outsider in school. That changed this month when he moved on campus to the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering to begin his freshman year. Despite being half a decade younger than the other freshmen, Liu said he finally feels like he belongs.

“Being here makes you feel good about yourself because you’re always being accepted,” Liu said. “In high school I had friends, and people let me join in their groups, but I never really felt like I was part of them.” At Olin, the students are like him: They excel at math and science, and they’re focusing on careers in engineering.

Liu’s life journey has been an unusual one since he went directly from the third grade at Pine Hill Elementary School in Sherborn to Dover-Sherborn High School, where at the age of 8 he was taking precalculus and physics. This most recent transition, from high school to college, was easy, he said.

Sitting in a creative writing class last week, Liu wore wire-rimmed glasses, an orange and white striped polo shirt, jeans, and flip-flops. While he certainly looked younger than his classmate with the bushy beard, Liu wasn’t too conspicuous. He stands 5 feet 7 inches tall, and his voice has changed, for the most part. He held his own during a class discussion about Jane Kenyon’s poem “Happiness.”

Now that Liu is settling in at Olin, he’s making up for lost time outside of the classroom.

“During the first week of school I was chatting with a group of my friends and I told them that I’d never been to a sleepover party before,” Liu said. That night nine male and female students threw a party for him in a dorm room. “It was awesome,” he said. “We played [the game] Apples to Apples and watched the movie ‘Star dust.’ ” They turned in around 2:30 a.m.

Advanced placement

Liu’s mother, Joy Bai, said her son’s math talents surfaced when he was about 2 years old. He’d wake up at 5 a.m., walk into her bedroom, and ask her and her husband for math problems. “Roland was recognizing patterns and doing things that I had done in middle school,” Bai said. “This is when I realized that he might be a little different.”

Bai recalls an afternoon when she took him to the local garden center. She purchased four plants at $6.99 each and was charged a little over $37. “I wasn’t paying attention and reached for my credit card,” she said. “Roland began tugging at my pants saying, ‘Mom, Mom, they charged you too much!’ ” He was 3 years old.

Because he had always been very social, his parents kept him with his peers. But by third grade he started getting bored. That March, Bai, who holds a master’s in education from Beijing Normal University, decided to home-school her son. When she could no longer teach him math, she went to the school superintendent for help.

At age 8 he began taking high school courses, and when he was 9 he enrolled full-time as a freshman at Dover-Sherborn High School – taking advanced placement calculus and statistics, physics, and honors chemistry with the juniors and seniors. Most of his classmates were looking into colleges and zipping off in their cars after school, but Liu said he got used to it.

Bai said she is happy knowing that she and her husband, Louis Liu, a vice president for Wellington Management Co., are doing what they can to nurture their son’s talents. Bai, who grew up in China, recalls with sadness her gifted younger brother who was denied an education by the Chinese government because of his outspoken political views and now works as a farmer.

Roland has an older sister who is a senior at Dover-Sherborn and a brother in fourth grade, and Bai said she takes pains not to treat Roland differently than his siblings. “Roland never brags, and since he was little I’ve been very careful,” she said. “I don’t think he’s better than anybody, and we treat them all the same way.”

‘More than capable’

While attending classes at Dover-Sherborn High School, Liu taught himself biology and Latin; he took the advanced placement Latin exam when he was 11. Looking to fill his hourly high school math requirements for graduation, the family found Olin College, where they met with Michael Moody, the vice president for academic affairs.

“I was struck that even though he was 11 or 12 it was clear that his maturity, beyond his intellectual capacity, was pretty extraordinary,” Moody said.

Liu was given permission to take three half-semester courses: Differential Equations, Probability and Statistics, and Linear Algebra.

He graduated from high school last June with a grade-point average above 4.0, but his acceptance to Olin was no slam-dunk. The competition was stiff, with applications coming from around the globe. Every admitted student receives a four-year, full-tuition scholarship (valued at around $130,000) made possible by the F.W. Olin Foundation, which committed $400 million, one of the largest grants in the history of American higher education. The college opened in 2002.

The class of 2012 is made up of 33 women and 47 men from 26 states and five countries. There are 69 AP Scholars and 14 valedictorians. Liu is by far the youngest member of the class. He’s not sure which branch of engineering he will pursue, though he’s leaning toward biological engineering and alternative energy.

Molly Gutcher, a freshman from Virginia, said Liu gets along well with the rest of the students and that his insights in class are as profound as anyone else’s.

“Roland is definitely more than capable of being at this school in terms of mental capacity, but it is undeniable that he is still 13 years old,” said Gutcher. “There will be times when someone will make a sexual joke that he either won’t get or will be appalled at because he’s not really used to it.” Still, she added: “He’s more mature than half the guys here.”

Accepted on campus

Beyond Liu’s academic resume, he’s a skilled violinist who has played with the New England Conservatory and the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. He is a member of Olin’s Conductor-less Orchestra, and continues to take lessons from his violin teacher in Weston. Since he can’t drive, his mother picks him up for lessons.

Liu says he’s not embarrassed and that he isn’t in much of a hurry to get his license.

“I have these visions that I’ll be a horrible driver,” he said. “I don’t play many video games, but once I played a racing game and completely crashed the car.”

A few days into freshman orientation at Olin, Liu’s roommate, Tom Lamar, learned that he would be living with someone who is two years younger than his own little sister. Lamar, an 18-year-old from Arlington, said Liu’s age surfaced when they were talking about credit cards and Liu mentioned that he wouldn’t have one until he turned 18.

“I was expecting him to say that he’d be 18 in December, but then he told me that he was 13 years old,” Lamar said. “I’d just figured that he happened to be skinny and young looking, but I didn’t think he was the same age that I was in middle school.”

Shock aside, Lamar said the age disparity hasn’t been an issue, and Lamar says that in some areas Liu knows a lot more than he does.

“We started using a complicated modeling program called Simulink, and while other people were struggling to figure out just enough to get their labs done, Roland was making some fanciful model of some huge environment,” Lamar said. “It’s really amazing how smart he is.”

But there is more to Liu’s acceptance on the Olin campus than his intellect. He hangs out with his classmates. He plays Frisbee on campus and practices juggling with his friends between classes.

“I’ll say that I’m really glad Roland’s my roommate,” Lamar said. “He’s an awesome guy.”

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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