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Teen Earns Degree Before Diploma
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Alex Harris

On April 30, Oakdale teen Alex Harris will receive an associate’s degree in Chemistry from Modesto Junior College — one month before he receives his high school diploma. And, after just one year of enrolling at the junior college.

It is believed that he is the first student in the history of MJC to accomplish this feat.

Harris takes his first class of the morning at 6:30 a.m. at MJC, then he walks across the street to high school where he is a senior at Valley Charter School.

Harris has lived most of his life in Oakdale. He attended Fair Oaks Elementary School, Oakdale Junior High School, and Oakdale High School through his junior year. For his senior year, he enrolled in Valley Charter School, which enabled him to take courses at MJC.

According to Harris’ father Kent, his son had “maxed out” with math at OHS with Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus BC – the high school’s highest level of math, which is first and second year calculus combined into one year. Harris said he only needed an Economics/Government class and an English class to graduate but was presented with options of taking art classes to fill in his schedule. He’d wanted more academic rigor.

The elder Harris said that his son really didn’t have a choice but to enroll at the charter school because OHS didn’t have an arrangement with the junior college that would allow him to get credits and the charter school had more flexibility.

“I know, more and more, we are seeing high school students who are taking classes here,” said MJC counselor and transfer center coordinator Leticia Cavazos.

Alex Harris estimated that he had approximately 30 peers at the high school who were in the same boat as he for the 2009-10 year with AP classes, where they had gone as far as they could go, as some AP classes were eliminated, and would either have to enroll in regular classes or make other arrangements. He felt the latter choice was in his best interest.

He displays a polite and engaging personality and acknowledged that his biggest challenge was to give up attending OHS, where he’d known many of his classmates since his days in elementary school and junior high.

“I love the Oakdale community,” Harris said. “It’s so tight-knit.”

He was a member of the OHS champion Academic Decathlon team, the state-level competing Science Olympiad team, and was involved in ‘S’ (Service) Club. His favorite teacher was Pete Simoncini. During his eighth grade and ninth grade years, he played defensive tackle and defensive end – and he has the physique to prove it – in a youth football league.

With a full load of classes at MJC and high school coursework, Harris has had to make some adjustments to his extracurricular activities.

“This year has been all school,” he said, adding that he does enjoy hiking in the mountains.

Kent Harris said that in order to make his rigorous academic schedule work out, his son looked at what the average person spends watching television and playing video games, and he completely gave up those things and devoted that time to school.

Cavazos met Harris last summer. She said she went into work one day and Harris was meeting with a UC recruiter, who was courting Harris heavily. Cavazos recalled that she thought Harris was getting ready to transfer out of MJC, she didn’t realize he technically wasn’t a college student.

“I was very shocked and surprised to find out he was still in high school,” she said.

She added that students usually come to her for guidance on planning their college coursework, but Harris pretty much knew his plans and told her what they were. She said that she works with a number of high-achieving students, but Harris was the first student she’s seen who had accumulated enough college units to graduate with a degree before receiving a high school diploma. She added that she’d seen a student coming in with 30 units before and would transfer out in a year, but Harris was far beyond that.

Cavazos said she was presented with new challenges when it came to Harris’ situation.

“They came in and asked, ‘Is it going to be okay for him to graduate from MJC before he graduates from high school?’”

She had to contact the evaluations office and check with the director. After some research, they had the answer within a few days. Harris was eligible for a degree.

Harris said that when he checked into being able to obtain his degree, he was only two semesters away from having the required units. Cavazos reported that 60 units are required for graduation or transfer. Harris will graduate with 72 units and has maintained a 4.0 grade point average.

Cavazos believes that they will see what kind of impact Harris’ story makes at the junior college in the fall when students begin to enroll. Harris was also featured recently on page 58 of MJC’s 2010-2011 catalog of classes.

Harris’ father said that the family got the “facts of life” from a UC admissions dean who shared that a good GPA and SAT scores weren’t necessarily enough to get accepted, as college credits are also very important and can make the difference. He said it shows that a student is a good risk and they can also handle college level coursework.

“There were other students on his level (at OHS) that didn’t get accepted to where they wanted to go because they didn’t have the credits,” said Kent Harris.

Alex Harris was courted by many universities and offered several scholarships. He decided to accept a full-ride scholarship to Stanford University, where he will start this fall as a freshman who happens to already have a sizable amount of college units.

Harris had completed MJC’s Emergency Medical Technician program and spent a shift at a local emergency room, which has inspired to become a trauma physician. He has hopes of attending Stanford Medical School after obtaining his bachelor’s degree.

Cavazos said that she hopes Harris will change some people’s perception that those who are top students go straight to a four-year college and those who aren’t go to junior college.

“It’s not just for people who are not successful (academically). It’s for those who want to save money, and for those who want to improve their chances for transfer,” she said. “…I think it’s a really good opportunity for students to take classes while they’re still in high school. They can see what college classes are like… Modesto Junior College is a really good starting point for a lot of students who are planning to transfer to a four-year college.”

Harris said that the experience of going to MJC and getting a taste of college before diving in to university life has been rewarding.

“I’d like to see a lot more people doing it,” he said. “I’ve seen I could do it. I’ve seen a lot of other classmates who could’ve done the exact same thing I have… I’d like to have seen them do it – do just as good... I’d like for my story to be not so unique.”

Harris has now set the bar for educational achievement in his family. He has two younger sisters who are following in his footsteps and each one plans to get their associate degrees before their diplomas – and they each hope to earn their degrees earlier in their high school careers than their big brother.