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14-year-old welcomes the constant challenge of college

July 29, 2012|By JANET HEIM | janeth@herald-mail.com
  • Aubrey Sparks just finished her third year at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. She was 14 when she started her studies there.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

Aubrey Sparks isn’t your typical teenager. She was 14 when she started as a student at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., and has just finished her third year there, majoring in philosophy and political science and minoring in peacemaking.

She’s a voting member of the private four-year women’s liberal arts college’s Student Senate, even though she won’t be old enough to vote in this November’s presidential election. Aubrey was going into her junior year of college before she was old enough to get her driver’s license last summer.

Aubrey grew up in Williamsport and attended kindergarten at Hagerstown Children’s School, then went to Fountain Rock Elementary for first grade, demonstrating abilities far above grade level, father Michael Sparks said.

The magnet program for the arts was introduced at Fountaindale Elementary School and it was decided to submit an application for Aubrey, with little expectation that she would be selected.

“She was my oldest. You just don’t know. You think all kids are reading chapter books in kindergarten,” Michael Sparks said.

Aubrey said her acceptance for her second-grade year was a turning point.

“The magnet program in elementary school was amazing,” Aubrey said.

Her fifth-grade teacher, Jaclyn Chaney, and Elizabeth Morgan, who at the time was superintendent of Washington County Public Schools, suggested finding more for Aubrey, even though there were no middle school magnet programs back then.

“When the superintendent of schools talks, you start listening,” Michael Sparks said.

The summer after fifth grade, Aubrey spent two weeks in Europe with the People to People program, traveling with other students her age.

During Aubrey’s eighth-grade year at Springfield Middle School, it was decided she would skip high school, based on her grades, academic skills and SAT scores.

Morgan suggested Mary Baldwin’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, or PEG, as an option.

“The trip without parents, after doing that and being in a situation where I wanted more (middle school) — the rules don’t apply if they’re not working for me — I started thinking I could make it work,” Aubrey said of going straight to college after middle school.

On her first visit to Mary Baldwin, she said, “I was like a kid in an expensive candy store — keep my hands in my pockets, because I was afraid to break anything.” 

Aubrey applied and was thrilled when her acceptance letter to Mary Baldwin College arrived. The next step was figuring out how to go to college with as little student debt as possible, with four fewer years to save for it.

Then came the second piece of good news. Aubrey was awarded the one four-year scholarship to an entering PEG student, which clinched her decision to go to college early.

“I felt like I was ready as an incoming freshman, but we were equally unprepared as all freshmen were, whether age 14 or 17,” said Aubrey, who admits to having some homesickness her first year.

The PEG students, because they are younger than most of the other students on campus, live together and have age-appropriate rules, such as curfews.

“I was afraid when I went to Mary Baldwin. Now I’m surrounded by opportunities,” Aubrey said.

Aubrey is involved with student government, has served as hall president and is vice president of the Student Government Association, which makes her president of the Student Senate. She is also a teaching assistant for a philosophy course, is captain of the fencing team and is on the college’s debate team.

She said there have been times when she misses not having had a high school experience, although she went to Williamsport High’s homecoming dance last year and recently went to Poolesville High School’s prom.

Aubrey said she still has a silly streak and that going to college early doesn’t mean she had to give up being who she is.

“I keep telling her ‘Don’t lose the kid in you,’” Michael Sparks said. 

Aubrey keeps in touch with her middle school friends, although her father and his second wife and their blended family live in Adamstown, Md. She has a younger brother, Tim, who will start high school in the fall. Their mother, Mitsy Sparks, lives in Greencastle, Pa.

Aubrey said she welcomes the constant challenge of college, but her friends will graduate from high school next year, when she is graduating from college. 

Now she is weighing the decision of whether to go to law school or go a fifth year at Mary Baldwin to earn a master’s degree in teaching.

“I’m confident to carry myself academically. When I go somewhere, I don’t see my age as a deterrent,” Aubrey said.

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