When the 508 Southern students walk across the graduation stage Friday, ready to start new chapters in their lives, among them will be two young men hailed by the school as academic prodigies.
Ronald Alexander started taking college-level courses at 15 years old before enrolling at Southern at age 16. His friend and fellow physics major, Polite Stewart Jr., began his university career at age 14.
When they receive their diplomas during Southern’s fall commencement, the pair will share the distinction of being two of the youngest graduates in Southern’s history.
Stewart, 18, entered Southern four years ago to much fanfare. He was under a microscope as his classmates learned of the student on campus who was too young to drive or see an R rated movie alone.
Stewart, who lived off campus during his four years at Southern, said he adjusted fairly easily. “The attention I got died down pretty quickly,” he said.
He traces his love for academics to the dinosaur books his father bought him as a young child. Later, as a toddler, Stewart said he began watching scientific documentaries where his interest in herpetology, entomology and paleontology grew. “I was pretty much interested in all the sciences,” he said.
Now, barely an adult, Stewart has set his sights on a career in biological and physical engineering. He spent last summer doing research at North Carolina State University, where he worked on developing self-cleaning, anti-glare glass coated with anti-reflective material and designed to repel oils and water.
After continuing his research in a post-grad program next summer, Stewart said he will start graduate school one of a number of colleges that have shown interest.
His mother, Ava Stewart, isn’t surprised by her son’s success.
“His father and I could tell early on that he wanted information. There was an intensity in his focus. He started reading when he was three,” she said.
Ava and Polite Stewart Sr. began homeschooling their son shortly after he left daycare, she said. The couple enrolled him in different programs over the years to advance his learning and to let him be around other kids, she added.
“He was doing ninth-grade work at 10 years old; he took college credits at 12,” she said. “I didn’t have any reservations when he started college. We had to let him go, we would’ve been holding him back.
Southern physics professor Diola Bagayoko has mentored Stewart since he was around 12 years old watching him progress academically and socially over the last six years. He said Stewart is destined for great things.
“He is a very brilliant young man lucky to have had highly responsible parents,” Bagayoko said. “Because of his capability and his focus, I believe he’s set to do great things in science, technology and engineering.”
Alexander, 20, took a different path on his road to graduation. He said he enjoyed math beginning at a young age, started school at age 4, skipped the 7th grade, taught himself calculus in the 10th grade and then left Southern Laboratory School two years before his classmates.
“I always thought I would be a math major. I arbitrarily picked physics because it was math-related, but now I really like it,” he said. “It’s a hard subject and I feel accomplished. I like seeing how quantum mechanics applies to life.”
Two summers ago, Alexander studied prostate brachytherapy at The Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, where he worked to develop computer algorithms used to study how tumors react when they are implanted with tiny radioactive particles.
Last summer, Alexander was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., where he worked on building the elusive quantum computer, a theoretical device scientists believe will be faster and more efficient than today’s digital computers.
After choosing to live with his mother in Baker rather than on campus, Alexander said he took to the university atmosphere right away. “Skipping 7th grade was a bigger adjustment for me; college life I was OK with,” he said.
His mother, Pamela Jones-Alexander said she had some concerns about enrolling him in college at such a young age, but trusted his maturity.
She said he’d been enrolled in different academic programs throughout his life and knew how to handle himself.
“He’s used to a lot of structure and being around professional people,” she said. “I knew that he would surround himself with the right people”
Jones-Alexander said her son always showed a talent for learning. He could assemble complex puzzles when he was very young and started reading at age 4.
“I kind of knew he was gifted; his pre-K teacher knew it right away,” she said. “I just want him to be all that he can be. I want him to make his mark in the world and make a difference.”
Bagayoko also watched Alexander grow in the Southern’s Department of Physics. The professor calls his student “a genius.” “There’s not a single doubt in my mind that he’s going to make an immense contribution to society,” he said.
Bagayoko said he once stopped by a volunteer tutoring session Alexander was leading and was amazed at how well his student could explain complex information to classmates.
“He was explaining things in such a clear manner and with poise,” Bagayoko said. “I thought to myself, ‘I want to be just like him when I grow up.’ He’s a jewel, period.”