A graduation story:
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in biology from Hopkins last
Thursday, premed student Ajay Bahtia has just one last thing he
needs to get done before he takes off for the summer: graduate
from high school.
Bahtia, who just turned 18, is in the rather unusual position of graduating from college two weeks before he graduates from high school. On June 13, he will graduate from Gilman School, a private, boys' high school in Roland Park.
How he has managed to complete both college and high school simultaneously is nothing short of amazing. Imagine being 16 and taking 19 1/2 college credits, high school classes, playing high school sports like soccer, wrestling and crew and finding a shred of free time to play the violin, draw, and stay somehow sane and connected with friends.
"I worried a lot about Ajay doing too much and missing out on important adolescent experiences, but he's the kind of student who thrives on rising to academic challenges," says Jeff Christ, head of Gilman's English Department and Bahtia's academic counselor there. Christ has kept a watchful eye on him since he was a freshman. "Ajay is a very balanced person, he's well-liked and has a core group of friends both here and at Hopkins. How he's managed to do it all with such grace is really something. If anything, Gilman has lost out a little by not having him around on campus as much."
Graduating from college at age 18 was not something Bahtia set out to do when he began taking the occasional college course in seventh grade. It was something that just sort of evolved, he says.
"And then in tenth grade, it just sort of exploded," he adds.
After completing third grade, Bahtia began spending his summers at Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth, an academic summer camp for gifted children. In seventh grade, he took his SATs and, because his scores were high, he was invited by several area colleges to take classes.
"At first it was a little daunting. There I was in seventh grade taking a Spanish class at Towson State with Dan Crow-ley, Towson's star quarterback," recalls Bahtia. "But I had a really great teacher, and everyone was low key and very cool about it. The students, including Crowley, would see me in the halls and say 'hi' and ask what was up with me.
"I stopped feeling intimidated once I realized that it was not like the people in my classes already knew the material. They were essentially in the same position as I was. It was a little weird having my high school algebra teacher as my lab partner in one physics class. But even that turned out to be fun."
When he was in tenth grade, Bahtia was invited by Hopkins to enroll as a full-time college student. But neither Christ, Bahtia's father nor Bahtia himself were willing to completely leave Gilman.
"We wanted to keep Gilman as his base," says Bahtia's father Kamal, a single parent who is battling both lupus and a brain tumor. "We didn't want Ajay to lose out on being a teenager. And anyway, academics isn't all what Bahtia is about. He's very outgoing and has some good friends there. He also is involved in other activities like sports and art."
So Bahtia took two classes each semester at Gilman and as many as 19 credits at Hopkins. Every so often, his schedule would get a little monstrous, says his father. Before he had his driver's license, Kamal, who is originally from India, would shuttle Bahtia back and forth between campuses.
"It was very tiring," says Kamal, a former computer scientist whose lupus has left him unable to work for the last 10 years. "There were times when it just felt like too much. When he was able to drive himself, though, it became much easier."
And there were a few other tricky issues. How does Bahtia hang out with new-found college friends or join clubs that meet at night when he has a 10 p.m. curfew? There were definitely some confusing times, when he felt pulled in different directions, he says.
So why is he in such a rush to finish college?
"People ask me that every now and then, and I don't really know what to say because I know that when I'm 64 it will not have made a big difference in my career whether or not I graduated early," says Bahtia. "But I guess I've loved the challenge of it all. You know, when you're confronted with a beast like cell bio, you want to know if you have what it takes--the intelligence, the discipline--to take it on."
As he was slaying beasts like cell biology, biochemistry and other upper level science courses, Bahtia, an only child, was also struggling against the worries and stresses of his father's illnesses.
"He's been very sick, and it's hard to be of much help when you're finally getting home completely exhausted after organic chemistry at 9:40 p.m.," he says. "I worry about him a lot. In a way, I think having to deal with my father being sick has made dealing with the academic load a lot easier because I know that they're not nearly as important as what we're dealing with at home. If we can handle the stress of that, we can handle pretty much everything."
Now that he's finished high school and college, Bahtia is going to take it easy for a year before applying to medical school. He's thinking of spending the year earning a master's degree in art. Time, he says, to attend to the right side of his brain, which was left a little unnurtured this year because he needed to fulfill all his premed requirements. After that, he'll go to medical school so he can eventually become a pediatric surgeon--or a reconstructive plastic surgeon. He hasn't decided.
Knowing Bahtia, he'll probably be both. But before any of that he has to find a date for his senior prom.
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