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Sweet Sixteen

First-year students who enter Harvard at 16 say their age generally does not make a difference in their education.

By Jason T. Benowitz

When Neelendu Dey '00 arrived at Harvard this September, he thought his age would be his ultimate social downfall.

Dey, who skipped 2nd and 7th grades and graduated from high school two years early, didn't tell anyone his age, and nobody would have guessed anyway. Sporting a thick black goatee, Dey doesn't look like he's 16.

But after finally telling people his age, Dey says it wasn't the social hindrance he thought it would be.

"Maybe the second week here I was at a party where the people knew I was 16," Dey says. "They were all talking about it with me. It helped me to meet people at the party."

As Dey leans back in his chair in his Thayer 503 room, he says he doesn't treat his early arrival as anything special.

"Being younger than everybody has been true for me since I was 10 or 11 years old," he says. "It's something that makes me unique, but I don't really make a big deal out of it."

Jyotsna Dey, Neel's mother, says she is glad her son decided to spend his time pursuing a good education.

"The priority in our life is education," she says. "He can do the traveling and take time off after his education... . Because of my background, I feel this way."

She says she is confident Neel can handle college life.

"He faced the same situation in high school where he was two years younger than all his friends," she says.

Not all first-years who are 16 say the adjustment is easy. But for the most part, they say their age does not make a difference in their Harvard experience.

And several 19 and 20-year-old seniors who are graduating this year say their age never really affected their education.

Social Adjustments

Michael L. Develin '00 tells a different story, though, when he relates his experiences as a 16-year-old first-year.

"Academically, it's easy. Socially, I'm still getting adjusted," he says.

Develin says he notices the age difference between himself and the rest of his classmates.

"Everyone here is a bit wiser than I am. I have to learn to be more mature," he says. "People here are more focused, while I'm always changing my mind.... I can't keep my mind straight on any one thing."

Despite the age differences, Develin says he is glad he made the decision to come to Harvard.

"I had no reason not to go to college," he says. "Yeah, I could have taken a year off but I'd just be really bored. Being dirt poor I can't go traveling or anything. I would have just stayed home otherwise."

His mother, Wonbok Lee, says she was anxious to send him to college so he could be challenged academically. In fact, she says she hoped he would forgo his senior year in high school to attend college at 15.

"I was afraid that Michael would be too bored at high school," she says. "I warned him that it's hard to waste a year and be bored. We had professors of mathematics telling us not that he should go to college at 16, but that he should attend grad school at 16."

In the end, though, Lee let her son decide for himself when he would start college.

"He was afraid that at age 15 people would know him as 'the kid,'" she says. "He didn't want to throw that block in front of him."

Although he rushed through the public education system at Stuyvesant to graduate high school at age 15, Develin says he intends to take his time at Harvard.

"Everybody wants to get through everything so quickly here," he says. "There's really no need."

Fittin' In

Michael R. Brauwerman '00 also entered Harvard at age 16, but says he fits in with the Class of 2000 just fine.

"It's just like we're all the same age," he says.

Brauwerman offers an explanation as to why the transition has been so easy despite his youth: "The error range between maturity and age is such that people act older and younger than they are. And we're all distributed between 16 and 20, so we all get along well."

But he says several minor social problems have plagued his early entrance to college.

"Eighteen is an age limit for the state and so I haven't gone to clubs and things [while] people I know have been going for a while," he says. "I'll probably go once I'm old enough."

And then there is the 'bully' in his entryway.

"The guy next door, I hardly even know the guy, and he always makes fun of my age," Brauwerman says. "Ask him why because I sure don't know."

Brauwerman says he rejected the option of cross-registering with a Florida state university during his senior year in high school, preferring to study away from home.

"I wanted to start off as a freshman and make sure to stay the entire term," Brauwerman says. "If I went to the state school, my parents would want their boy back home, and I didn't want them to back out."

His parents, Suzan C. and Jeffrey N. Brauwerman, say they support their son's final decision.

"We're very excited. We feel not only is it a major accomplishment that our son got into Harvard, but it's a major accomplishment that he got in a year early," Jeffrey Brauwerman says.

His mother says she has no doubt about Brauwerman's ability to interact socially with classmates who were older.

"He's a very mature and focused young man," she says. "Age is not necessarily a criterion for maturity, and Michael's always been able to fit in."

'Doogie Syndrome'

Edward J. Ha '97 adds some perspective to these young students' experiences, because he will complete his Harvard degree this year at the age of 20.

Ha says that entering Harvard at age 16 "hasn't made all that much of a difference."

"I have no regrets," he says. "I thought that if I had stayed along with my own age groups that I would have been bored."

Ha says graduating before his 21st birthday presents an amusing paradox.

"It's a little strange that I've finished my entire college career without being old enough to drink," he says.

Ha adds that his age may place him at a disadvantage because he is applying to medical school.

"Occasionally I feel maybe I might be going into a Doogie Howser sort of syndrome, because as a doctor I won't be as seasoned as some people," Ha says.

Still, he defends his choice to enter Harvard at age 16.

"I really can't see what kind of a difference two years makes," he says.

Steven M. Gipstein '98-'97 is in a similar situation to Ha.

Gipstein says his early entrance has been the source of many minor problems.

"Right now all my friends are 21, and for obvious reasons that makes things difficult," he says.

Gipstein, who is also applying to medical school, says some are concerned about his age.

"The trend for med school admittance has been to recommend a year or two off after college, and me applying even earlier than normal...it means I go in with a strike against me," he says.

But on the whole, Gipstein says he made the right decision when he enrolled here three years ago.

"I think Harvard was where I needed to be at the time that I entered, and I was definitely ready," he says.

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