(Editor’s note: The article below is reprinted from yesterday’s edition of The Philippine Inquirer.)
In college at 11, she’s UP summa cum laude at 16
By Margaux Ortiz
MANILA, Philippines — She was shielded from public view as an undergraduate student at the University of the Philippines.
Today, at the UP commencement exercise in Diliman, Quezon City, 16-year-old Mikaela Irene Fudolig triumphantly steps into the spotlight as she delivers a speech as the valedictorian of the graduating class.
The summa cum laude with a general weighted average of 1.099 will also receive the Best BS Physics Student award and the Dean’s Medallion for Excellence in Undergraduate Studies at the UP College of Science. (She earlier qualified as a regional finalist for the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines. )Mikaela was only 11 when she became a college student as part of an experimental program that would test the possibility of gifted children entering university without compromising their emotional and social development. The conditions of the program required that Mikaela be hidden from public scrutiny and the unforgiving glare of the media. And she told the Inquirer in an interview marked with much laughter that more than her awards and achievements, she was proud that the Early College Placement Program (ECPP) originally designed for her had succeeded.
“It was a great thing that I was able to show people that it can be done,” she said. Now, she added with a hopeful smile, similar programs to help gifted people like herself could be conceived and implemented.According to Mikaela, many gifted children end up discouraged or unproductive because of a dearth of programs to guide them and maximize their abilities.
They sometimes refuse to take required courses, claiming early mastery in these areas, or are simply interested in other things.
“I know one brilliant classmate who was very promising. But for some reason, he did not attend many of his classes and even retook some subjects,” she said.Mikaela did not undergo such a dilemma. She thinks of her academic life at the Philippines’ premier state university as “a happy experience.”
“Many people think that a child, even if equipped with the mental abilities, is not emotionally prepared to enter college. I am glad to have proven them wrong,” she said cheerfully.Tony Fudolig and Lyn Dimaano apparently took pains to have their eldest child grow up a balanced individual. Lyn made Mikaela join her nursery class in the afternoons even if she was already enrolled in the first grade at the age of four.
“Mikaela could read and write English and Filipino at three years old,” Lyn recalled. But she said she made sure that the child still had her share of playmates and nursery games.
Mikaela said that at three, she already had a keen interest in science. She recalled enjoying the times her mother would take her to the UP Botanical Garden and point out to her the different plant families.
“We also grew mongo seedlings and conducted small experiments. I was fascinated with how nature and science worked even back then,” she said.
Science appears to be a family passion. Tony is an industrial engineering graduate, and Lyn used to teach biology courses at UP. (They are now managing the family-owned Brains Review Center.)
Their second child, Miguel, 13, is an incoming senior at the Quezon City Science High School. The youngest, 9-year-old Raphael, is in sixth grade at the Jose Abad Santos Memorial School.Best option
After grade school at Saint Mary’s College, Mikaela was accepted at Quezon City Science High. It was, she said, the best option for her at that time.
“I enjoyed my first year in high school. I had very nice classmates, good teachers and a challenging environment,” she said.
She was elected first-year-level council president and spearheaded many projects, including a scholarship program for underprivileged classmates.
The family decision for her to enroll at UP for a summer class marked a critical turning point in the 11-year-old’s life.
When Mikaela formally sought permission to register for a Mathematics 11 class in UP, her case was referred to Dr. Leticia Penano Ho, then dean of the College of Education.
Ho, also the president of the Philippine Association for the Gifted, noted the child’s potential to survive in the university at the end of the summer course, and later designed the ECPP for her.Baby doll shoes Mikaela recalled how intimidated she was on the first day of her Math 11 class.
Comparing her high school and college classmates, she said laughingly: “It was one thing to have your classmates stare at you because you are three years younger, and another for them to strangely appraise you because of the way you dress.”
She recalled in particular how her Math 11 classmates stared at her baby doll shoes, which she wore in high school: “They were all so quiet, choosing to remain silent in their seats, wearing their college get-ups. And there I was, wearing a skirt and a blouse, squirming uncomfortably in my seat.”Then on the verge of adolescence, Mikaela was shocked at the fast pace of the summer lessons. She was disheartened when she got a grade of 72 in the first exam, which was held a week after classes started.
“I was feeling low, but when I saw that my seat mate got a score of 71, I felt that there was still hope,” she said, still laughing.
The following week, after days of intensive study, Mikaela took the second exam along with the rest of the class. The professor later announced that the 11-year-old got the highest score.
“I felt very happy that I could fit in,” Mikaela said.
She got a grade of 1 in that Math 11 class.Exceptional grades The following semester, Mikaela enrolled at UP as a nondegree student and volunteer for Ho’s program. But she enrolled as a sophomore at Quezon City Science High at the same time, just in case her yearlong trial with ECPP fell through. “We eventually found out that this kind of setup could not work because I had no more time to take my high school exams,” she said.
But as Mikaela, her family and Ho happily learned, there was no need for this fallback plan. She completed her first year at the university with exceptional grades—an average of 1.395.
Mikaela next wrote then UP Chancellor (now president) Emerlinda Roman to consider her application to be a regular student. With her parents’ assistance, she also requested then Education Secretary Edilberto de Jesus to help her get into UP even without a high school diploma.
De Jesus wrote then UP president Francisco Nemenzo and endorsed Mikaela, attaching her transcript of records and her teachers’ certificate attesting to her excellent performance.Lyn Dimaano said that according to Department of Education officials, “not many people could get the kind of average Mikaela obtained in her first year in UP.”
“Their only concern was that she’d be happy,” the mother said.
In May 2003, the Board of Regents approved Mikaela’s admission—the first case of its kind nationwide, said a UP Newsletter.Between math and physics At the age of 12, Mikaela was formally enrolled as a BS Physics student at the UP National Institute for Physics. “I had the choice between math and physics and in the end, I chose the latter,” the teenager said, adding that she had no particular reason for doing so. “But I also think physics is more concrete than the more abstract mathematics,” she said. After the yearlong trial period, life at the university went smoothly for Mikaela. She made friends with her classmates, joined the UP Student Campus Ministry at the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice, passed a Japanese language proficiency exam, and attended classes she enjoyed. “I took two consecutive music courses because I just love studying different kinds of music in the world. Some people at the College of Music even thought I was a student there,” she said. Mikaela also kept in touch with her high school classmates, and even attended their junior-senior prom.
“I think I was able to extract all the good things I was supposed to have missed in high school,” she said.
Her most traumatic experience at UP was an encounter with a student assistant who thought her grade of 1.75 in a math subject was “a bit low.” “Maybe the assistant expected that because I was admitted to UP at such a young age, I would get a higher grade. I thought that maybe getting a 1.75 was equivalent to getting a barely passing mark,” she said, again laughing at the memory.Esguerra’s case The ECPP’s careful steps in keeping her out of the public eye helped a lot, according to Mikaela. Her adviser, Dr. Jose Perico Esguerra—who, before Mikaela, was the youngest student accepted at the university in 1984—was not as lucky. Esguerra was a 13-year-old Philippine Science High School student when he passed the advance placement exam for Math 11 and Math 14, and was allowed to enroll at the UP College of Science. “Cameras would sometimes follow Dr. Esguerra when he came out of the classroom. The other students, perhaps resentful of his achievements, would also bully and make fun of him in the corridors,” Lyn Dimaano said, adding:
“It was a good thing there was an agreement that Mikaela be shielded from the media so she could live her life as a normal university student.”No problem Mikaela plans to teach at the National Institute of Physics and to take up her master’s degree in physics at the same time.She said cheerily that she did not mind teaching students older—or taller—than she. “I’m used to it. Last night, I tutored a high school classmate three years older than me, and I had no problem doing it,” she quipped. Mikaela said her graduation speech would focus on opening new opportunities for others, including gifted ones like herself. “Instead of taking the road less traveled, the new graduates should make new roads,” said the 16-year-old trailblazer.