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MIT Better World

By Liz Karagianis

He’s not a big talker. Besides, he says, he’s not only an introvert, but he’s modest too.

Van Valen was accepted to MIT when he was 13. Now he’s a 14-year-old freshman.

He zoomed through 34 college courses while he was still in high school. He got 25 As and 9 Bs. He skipped second and third grades, sped through seventh and eighth grades, and began high school when he was 10.

“It’s a privilege to be at MIT,” he says. “I’m really happy that they chose me.”

Halfway through sixth grade, Van Valen’s Mom wanted him promoted directly to high school, but the school said no, so she took him and his brother out of school for two years and home-schooled them. “It was pretty intense,” says Van Valen, whose 15-year-old brother, Joseph, also is a freshman at MIT. “We studied math four hours a day and read four hours a day. Mostly we read the classics.”

He says he feels that those two years he got a much better education at home than he would have in school. “We went a lot faster. When I left school I was doing Algebra 1. When I went back, I was doing pre-calculus and trigonometry.”

Van Valen plans to double major in mathematics and physics. His dream is to get a PhD and perhaps to teach at MIT. “I know I want to go into academia.” By the time he’s 50, he says, he hopes to have tenure.

In the future, he wants to do something as powerful and important as Einstein did. “I’d like to develop something like the theory of relativity,” he says. “I want to do something that has a lasting impact on society.”

Like father, like son

Raised in Martinsburg, West Virginia, he is the son of Joseph Van Valen, who graduated from MIT in 1975, and Lauretta Carroll, who has a degree from Caltech and a master’s from Cornell. His father is an electrical engineer for AT&T, and his mother runs a software company from home.

The baby of the family, Van Valen is accustomed to always being the youngest in school, he says, but with his classmates he always felt like an equal. Even though in high school some students were up to five years older than he, he never felt excluded from conversations, he says. “As I was around older people, their maturity seemed to rub off on me.” The only thing he missed about not going to school, he says, “was the social aspect. I missed that, but all I gained academically was well worth it.”

On his MIT application, he listed as an extracurricular activity “comic book analysis.” (What’s that, you ask?) “Actually,” he says, “it’s my way of saying I read comic books.” He owns dozens. In addition, he loves to watch the Simpsons on TV. Also for fun, he often plays with Legos and has piles of them in his room at MIT.

The quality that most clearly defines him, he says, is “I don’t quit. Never. It’s just not an option for me. If I quit, that would be admitting there’s something that’s absolutely impossible for me to do, and that’s hard for me to accept.”

Once in fifth grade, he took an exam for talented youth and got a low score. “Instead of being shattered, I studied so hard the next year I got an A. Failure only makes me work harder. It’s like, whatever doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger.”

A boy with an iron will, Van Valen believes there is nothing he cannot achieve. “It’s like going to college at 14. The path can be quite stressful, but it’s nowhere near impossible.”

His biggest fear, he says, is encountering something that he could not do, no matter how hard he tried.

Every day he sets his alarm clock for 6 a.m. He makes it a point to wake up specifically to read the New York Times. “If you don’t,” he says, “you get out of touch with the world.”

Although he admires Einstein and Newton, neither is a role model, he says. “I’m not trying to pattern myself after them. I’m trying to be my own person and to develop as much as I can as an individual. I’m trying to be just like myself.”

The one thing he has discovered about himself already, he says, is “I know that I am smart.”