UC Berkeley Press Release
(Bonnie Azab Powell / UC Berkeley NewsCenter)
13- and 14-year-old siblings enter UC Berkeley as junior transfer students
BERKELEY – Charles Pierce really likes playing video games. He practices piano and violin. He used to study aikido, but lately he's been more interested in taking up fencing. Lately, however, the 13-year-old has mostly been hitting the books.
Charles is the youngest transfer student this fall at the University of California, Berkeley, where he's now in his junior year. His 14-year-old sister, Mayumi, also transferred in this fall as a junior.
Attending UC Berkeley is a bit of a family tradition: Their parents, Wincie Pierce and Qin Ma, met and married while they were students at UC Berkeley in the late 1980s.
"We don't think they're geniuses," said Pierce, who got his undergraduate Asian Studies degree in 1991. "We think it's a question of hard work and focus."
Mayumi and Charles seem to be taking the unusual situation in stride, probably because it's not so unusual to them. They're used to being the youngest students in the class, and at least at this point, the age difference isn't so obvious since they're tall enough and old enough to appear in their late teens.
They also already know a number of students on campus. Just walking across Sproul Plaza a few days before classes started, they ran into a friend from a science club at Contra Costa Community College, where they've studied the last few years. A number of students in that club wind up transferring to UC Berkeley as juniors, the Pierces say. Qin Ma, who homeschooled her children until they went to community college, said she is very grateful to the professors there who supported Mayumi and Charles.
"It's a good place to start," said Ma, particularly noting the college's Center for Science Excellence. "It was a wonderful way to participate in the science and math community."
At UC Berkeley, Charles is starting off with classes in philosophy, engineering, chemistry, integrative biology and Yongmudo, a martial art. Mayumi is taking engineering and integrative biology classes, too, and courses in biochemistry and business.
"They're not sure what they want to do yet. Mayumi is thinking about medicine, Charlie is thinking about law. But he just turned 13, so we'll see what happens," said Wincie Pierce.
Charles and Mayumi aren't the youngest transfer students to enter UC Berkeley. In 1996, a transfer student enrolled at the age of 12 years and 10 months, about 2 1/2 months younger than Charles. The youngest freshman was in 2000, when a student began at the age of 14 years and 5 months.
A few weeks into the fall semester, Mayumi and Charles say they're adjusting pretty well to life at UC Berkeley. As with most students, they're finding some classes are pretty tough while others aren't too bad.
"I'm spending most of my time on biochemistry," Mayumi said.
How these siblings wound up in college at such a young age is actually very simple, according to their parents. Ma and Pierce didn't originally intend to homeschool their children and sent them off to kindergarten and then Montessori school, Charles for one year and Mayumi for two. But the school relocated further away from them and they reconsidered their options, Pierce said.
"The whole thing with our kids is that we just found it heartbreaking to see their progress slow down when they went to school," he said.
They signed up for a home schooling seminar being held in Berkeley, met some other home schooling parents in the area, and made the plunge.
"We were afraid they wouldn't reach their full potential if they went the normal way," Pierce said.
Ma, who had already received her masters in law, started to homeschool the children while she worked on her J.S.D. dissertation at Boalt. They were up for breakfast at 8 a.m., studied from about 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then had an activity of some sort — going to the library and taking music or martial arts lessons — in the afternoon.
"We went to the library a lot, and I let them just read whatever they liked. On Sundays they went to Barnes & Noble to read new books," said Ma, who eventually received her J.S.D. from Boalt Hall in 2000. "Now, it's their favorite place."
Pierce said Mayumi and Charles took to academics naturally, but a lot of that interest came from seeing the people around them reading and talking about academic topics.
"We made it exciting for them. It was a fun thing," he said.
Ma said they never pushed Mayumi and Charles to be early university students.
"Academic achievement is just one part of life," Ma said. "To have a healthy body, an intellectual mind, and a large, loving heart is what our children were told is expected of them. These standards can be simplified into two words: responsibility and love.
"As students, our children have responsibility for their body, family, country and society," she continued. "Love means loving their parents, family, future children and compassion for their fellow students and people in general."
When it was time for the high school equivalency exam, Ma remembers being more nervous than they were, anxiously driving around while they took the three-hour test. "Mostly, it was easy," Mayumi said.
Needless to say, they passed, and in 2001 enrolled at ages 9 and 11 at Contra Costa Community College. Ma enrolled in the classes with them.
"Neither of us has much of a science education, or even math," Pierce said. "They all went together, at first taking the same classes as their mother. They did better than she did."
But their real education there was simply the experience of being in a classroom setting, their father said. "They went to college to learn how to go to college."
They also met a number of students who were transferring to four-year colleges, including most of their friends in the science club. Charles and Mayumi applied to a number of UC campuses, getting in to all of them.
The only hitch in applying was the online form, Pierce said. You have to be 13 or older to be authorized to do an "electronic signature" online, and Charles was still 12 when he applied.
"We're very happy they chose Berkeley," Pierce said.
Today, Ma has returned to the role of breadwinner and it's Pierce who is, for at least these first few weeks of school, taking time out from his startup real estate business to be on campus while his children attend classes. As time goes by — and Mayumi says she's ready to start exploring campus life on her own — he'll just drop them off and pick them up.
And while Charles and Mayumi may be younger than their fellow students, their parents are going through some pretty common emotions for college parents.
"They're both like birds — halfway out of the nest," Ma said.