UC Berkeley’s youngest student unfazed by college rigor

Kore Chan/Staff
UC Berkeley's youngest student, Kiavash Garakani, is 12 years old.

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It is 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, and 2050 Valley Life Sciences Building is bustling with Biology 1B students.

To spot Kiavash Garakani, you have to look closely. He sits quietly with his palms facing down. Under a thick set of glasses, he watches the crowd file into the room. Like most of his classmates, this fall is Kiavash’s first semester at UC Berkeley.

Like them, on top of juggling classes all day, he is trying to make new friends on a campus of more than 30,000 students. Unlike any of his classmates, Kiavash is only 12.

Kiavash and his older sister, who also came to campus at the age of 12, are the youngest students to enroll at UC Berkeley in at least 17 years, according to campus data.

Six years younger than most freshmen, Kiavash divvies up the time in his 18-hour days among some of the most challenging undergraduate courses on campus. In chemistry, biology and physics, his test scores have placed in the top 1 percent of the class. With community college credits, he has earned enough units to rank among juniors. He plans to take only two years to graduate with a degree in molecular and cell biology and a minor in bioengineering.

On an average day, Kiavash rushes to his first class as early as 8 a.m. From there, he runs back and forth between lectures, sections, labs and office hours. He spends the little breaks he has between classes studying at the Kresge Engineering Library.

But moving fast is something Kiavash and his family are used to.

When Kiavash’s sister was in the first grade, their father, Mehryar, had already witnessed a huge learning disparity between Kiavash’s sister and the other kids in her class.

“The class was really boring for her,” Mehryar Garakani said. “So every morning, when I’m trying to get her ready for school, she starts crying. She would refuse to go to school.”

When Kiavash was in the third grade, his parents enrolled him and his sister in an online music theory class to accompany their private piano and violin lessons in their Danville, Calif., home.

After the music class ended, Kiavash’s parents realized the after-school Chinese class he had been taking since kindergarten did not do enough for his conversation skills.

So they took stock of their options and led their young son and daughter by the hand and sat them down at a Chinese language class at a nearby community college.

“After they took Chinese for a while, and we saw that they were the top of their class, we started looking at math, English and so on,” said Mehryar, a stout middle-aged man who can count off the classes his son is taking better than Kiavash himself can. “Kiavash took an English placement exam in fourth grade and placed at a 10th-grade level. So he had to take only a few more to complete the entire high school English sequence.”

And after his fifth-grade graduation, Kiavash skipped middle school altogether.

Following multiple assessment tests that placed him at a 10th-grade level, he enrolled in Venture School in San Ramon for independent study to finish the high school classes he could not test out of. He also took courses he could use to transfer to UC Berkeley — following in the footsteps of his older sister, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree at the age of 14.

Kiavash has made his parents proud.

Mehryar Garakani has a doctorate in nuclear engineering from UC Berkeley and returned to school this fall to complete a master’s degree in medical physics in Southern California. His wife, Elham Garakani, is an associate professor of cytopathology at UC San Francisco. At 14, Kiavash’s older sister is currently attending the Southern California College of Optometry.

And then there’s Kiavash’s younger sister. The baby of the family, her mother said she just cannot imagine sending her 7-year-old daughter to a community college yet, though Kiavash and his older sister started taking those kinds of classes at the age of 8.

“For my little one, I don’t think we have the same plan,” Elham Garakani says. “She’s very smart, but I don’t think she’s mature enough for that.”

The reason he and his wife decided on an intensified curriculum for their two older children was a matter of academic excellence and curiosity and not age, Mehryar  said.

And though his first two children have achieved incredible academic success, Mehryar said he wouldn’t recommend the same strategy to other parents. The family has had to sacrifice a lot along the way, he said.

Mehryar took two years off of work to devote himself completely to his children’s hectic schedules. And now that he is following his own academic pursuits in Southern California, he does not get to spend much time with his son. For him and his daughter, family time has been reduced primarily to words over the telephone, and even those are hard to schedule amid everyone’s busy life.

“It was very difficult,” Mehryar said. “It took a lot of commute time, especially at some times when we were commuting around 10 times a day between three separate community colleges across the Bay Area.”

While pursuing his academics, Kiavash has had to give up more than evenings with the family.

Unlike his elementary school, the campus at his first community college did not have slides, sandboxes or a jungle gym. The average age of students in community college is 29 — not 8 — according to the American Association of Community Colleges. At Ohlone College, there were no third-graders running around with juice boxes during recess, and when the bells rang, Kiavash’s teachers didn’t instruct him to get in a single-file line to walk back to class.

Instead, Kiavash was getting used to doing things on his own.

While his elementary-school friends memorized their multiplication tables and learned long division, he was crunching numbers and proving theorems.

“I’m very proud of both of them,” Elham Garakani said. “But, at the same time, it stresses me out, too, because I have to put a little bit of fun into it, so that’s a challenge for me.”

With a heavy course load and a condensed timeline, sometimes fun is pushed to the back burner. Kiavash’s Chinese classes, piano lessons and judo were all put on hold this semester. And though he has academically surpassed others his age, Kiavash still depends on friends he made in elementary school. It is difficult for Kiavash to make friends at UC Berkeley, his mom said.

“Even if his social development is on par with that of his college peers, other Cal students might be hesitant to make friends with him because of their own stereotypes about age,” said Nicole Bush, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco.

When most students come to campus, they expect the Berkeley experience to alter their lives. But for Kiavash, coming to UC Berkeley is not much different from when he was taking community college classes to storm through middle and high school — only at Berkeley, he is bound by larger parameters and surrounded by more students.

“I’m kind of used to it because of all the community college classes I took,” he says. “It’s not that much of a transition.”

“The question is,” Bush said, “at the end of the day when he goes home, how does he feel about it?”

At the end of the day, Kiavash plays video games and gets scolded for spending too much time in front of the TV. Last year, he toured the world as a member of the national youth judo team, and during breaks from school, he likes to ski and play tennis with his family.

And for now, he sits at a desk surrounded by his classmates, leaving the worrying to his parents.

“As long as he doesn’t miss being a kid, I think he will be fine,” his mother says.

Afsana Afzal is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected].