School hasn’t always been a breeze for Aiden Hunter, a 16-year-old Lower Columbia College student who will graduate with his associate’s degree next month at the same time his teenage peers are only halfway through high school.
The Onalaska whiz kid has sprinted past his peers scholastically, but his accelerated journey has also come with its own set of roadblocks.
For starters, Aiden was diagnosed with dysgraphia — a form of dyslexia that makes it difficult to write letters and numbers — by the time he would have reached fifth grade. By that age he’d already been homeschooled three years and had advanced far ahead of his peers.
Aiden could already multiply and divide by the time he reached kindergarten, but today he says his biggest challenge has been crunching the numbers on how he’ll pay for his education.
“The financial end has been a nightmare,” said Aiden’s mother, Vanessa, during an interview inside the family’s woodstove-heated yurt. “Who’s ready to pay for their kid to go to college when they’re 12?” when Aiden first started attending LCC part-time.
Aiden is too young to qualify for most scholarships, which typically require applicants to be at least 18 years old. As a minor, he also can’t take out any federally backed student loans. And his mother would pay tens of thousands of dollars in additional interest on a private loan.
That’s not an option for the stay-at-home mother of two, who’s also home-schooling Aiden’s 9-year-old brother, Orien — who also has dyslexia — while the boys’ father supports the family on his income as a log scaler.
Aiden said the only reason he’s gotten this far through college is because he’s been able to get scholarship funding through LCC’s STARS program. Annual fulltime tuition at LCC is $4,150.
“The school has been amazing. Aiden never would have been able to attend without their help and support,” Vanessa said.
Paying for school isn’t the only challenge the youngster has had to overcome.
The average age of a community college student in the United States is 29. Aiden was 13 when he stepped into instructor Peter Livins’ introductory calculus-based physics course.
“When you have a 13-year-old in class, you don’t know what to make of them,” Livins said of Aiden’s older classmates.
But Livins said Aiden handled the social aspect of his schooling with grace.
“In some sense, he had enough maturity to recognize that some of these other students were just as lost as him,” he said.
With a transfer degree in general engineering in hand and a 3.6 GPA, Aiden plans to attend St. Martin’s University in Lacey next September to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He had looked at applying to Washington State University, but his mom said WSU told her he was too young to participate in science labs.
As a private university, St. Martin’s has more flexibility when it comes to students like Aiden. But that flexibility also comes with a higher price tag: average tuition for undergraduates there is just over $31,000 per year. That’s nearly triple the annual tuition at WSU.
Aiden has already received a number of merit-based scholarships from St. Martin’s, but Vanessa said the family is still about $15,000 short for the first year of tuition.
“We’re just going for it,” she said.
Aiden has been applying for paid engineering internships, but those opportunities have their own age restrictions. He said that if he’s forced to find a regular job, he’d like to work in the culinary arts and learn how to cook. He’s also started his own GoFundMe campaign and so far has raised $560 toward his $15,000 goal.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Aiden said he plans to attend St. Martin’s for another year and earn his master’s degree in civil engineering. He said he wants to use his education to help improve other people’s lives.
“Ideally, I’d like to get paid to help make stuff better or repair things,” he said.
In theory, Aiden could even earn a doctorate before he turns 25.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, though,” he said. “I’m just taking things one year at a time.”