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Scholarships for 14-year-old grad

Thomas Haney secondary student Sean Okawa is interested in biochemistry. - Colleen Flanagan/The News
Thomas Haney secondary student Sean Okawa is interested in biochemistry.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

Sean Okawa’s high school years were great – both of them.

The 14-year-old spent two years at Thomas Haney secondary, and now he’s trying to choose which prestigious Canadian university’s scholarship offer to accept.

It’s perhaps fudging the truth to say he did high school in two years. After Grade 6 at Alexander Robinson elementary, already advanced and on an accelerated program, he started doing high school work.

But it is accurate to say he spent two years attending high school.

And, at a time when most kids his age are looking forward to putting Grade 9 behind them, he’s pondering life on campus at a university.

And after seeing his marks, the universities are calling.

Sean got off to a bit of a ragged start, by his estimable standards, and his Grade 10 course work came in at 97 per cent. But he hit his stride in his Grade 11 courses, with an average of 98 per cent.

Now everything is clicking, and his Grade 12 average is 99 per cent.

Canadian universities have made generous offers, from Simon Fraser offering a scholarship valued at $34,000, to Montreal’s McGill extending $25,000.

When he first started applying, Sean wasn’t sure whether he would be able get in right away. The online application system extended as far forward as those born in 1997. There was apparently no accounting for a university applicant born in 1999.

But once he contacted the schools, Sean soon heard from their recruiters.

Socially, Sean admits he found his first year at Haney a little intimidating. He was small and young-looking, and that made him stand out. But a growth spurt made him pass for a Grade 9, and he soon settled into a school where the  culture is one of acceptance.

“It was a warm school, and I really like it here,” he said. “I really appreciate the system. It’s a unique school, and you can be different.”

He is a member of the executive committee on the student council, and winning the necessary votes shows that fellow students accepted him.

Biochemistry is the field that most appeals to Sean. He had been enjoying the academic rigours of physics and math courses, but at a post-secondary fair at his high school he was introduced to biochemistry, and toured the labs at SFU.

“That intrigues me quite a lot,” he said. “The chemistry of the human body really interests me.”

It’s a field of study that often leads to the life of a physician, or a career doing medical research. Sean has some time to decide.

The uber-student doesn’t spend all his time studying, though.

“Being well rounded is very important – having a balance,” said his mother, Amy.

She knows about the world of academia, having been a lecturer at a Tokyo law school.

She signed Sean up for karate when he was five years old. He’s now at the stage where he offers instruction to other students. He will be graded for his black belt this summer.

Since he was three, Sean has played piano, and now performs in classical recitals. Chopin is his favourite composer.

He also volunteers at the Maple Ridge library, lending his time to help teach children in Grades 1-3 learning to read and write. He can relate to them, because he was an ESL student. His family came to Canada from Japan when he was five.

“The teenager who taught me really helped me out. I was really thankful and wanted to help, too.”

Sean helps out with another library program, assisting local seniors in getting the most out of their cell phones and other electronic devices. It’s also gratifying.

“The things we find so easy they are so thankful for.”

Sean has wowed the staff at THSS.

“This is exceptional,” said principal Sean Nosek, noting how rare it is to have a student so young be ready for university.

It’s difficult to find a similar example. The Toronto Star profiled a 14-year-old who went to McMaster University in 2013. The Dean of Engineering noted that it was unheard of in his 50 years.

Nosek said Sean is unique in the academic focus he showed in his early years of school. Haney’s self-directed learning model, which allows children to learn at their own pace, has allowed him to sprint ahead.

His principal at Alexander Robinson was Sheila Pace. She said she saw many gifted students over her years as an educator, each gifted in their own way, but Sean was unique in his desire and opportunity to work ahead.

“He was an exceptional student. He has an incredible mind, and he’s very interested in learning,” she said.

English department head Kathryn Ferguson said he stands out for the breadth of his talent.

“He is, perhaps, one of the most conscientious students I have known,” she said. “In addition to his stellar work in the scientific realm, he also demonstrates higher level critical thinking and communication skills.

“Sean has a creative spirit, a poetic soul, and a warm sense of humour.”

Educators often watch students after they graduate, to see how successful they are in their future endeavors. Nosek said everyone is expecting big things from Sean.

“He’s one we’ll keep our eye on, for sure.”

 

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