Sakina Rizvi, a University of Toronto Mississauga student, is the youngest graduate from the class of 2018, at the age of eighteen. She graduated in June with a specialist in history of religions and is shortly starting her pursuit to complete two master’s degrees, one at U of T’s Ontario Institute of Studies in Education for curriculum studies and the other one online-based in London, U.K. for Islamic studies. Rizvi took some time to speak with The Medium and reflect on her undergrad as a 15-year-old in 2015 to a now 18-year-old with much greater dreams.
When news about Rizvi’s graduation spread, everyone wondered the same thing: how did she get to university at just 15? “The school I went to followed an ability-based learning model. We would take courses based on our learning capabilities rather than being grouped off by age, for example,” Rizvi explains. She went to a private school that focused on fast tracking based on how much a student could handle, what the student could excel at, and where their strengths lay. She was 14 when she finished high school and 15 when she began university.
One would imagine that there would be struggles associated with adjusting to university at such a young age, but that wasn’t the case for Rizvi. At the age of 15, she states she didn’t feel at a disadvantage academically and there wasn’t any point where she felt less capable or mature than her peers. “You know, it really didn’t matter,” she begins. She pauses and then continues, “I mean, I was a little nervous initially thinking my age would be a huge deal and everyone would notice but honestly, as long as you can get the work done, nobody is really paying that much attention.”
Rizvi completed core math and science requirements in high school in preparation to pursue computer science at UTM but once she took a course on the history of religions, she decided to change her path. “It was either that or education,” Rizvi says.
Due to people’s tendency to place high expectations on those who excel at young ages, Rizvi says she tried not to reveal her age unless she absolutely had to. “If I tell them my age before they get to know me, they might already have preconceived notions that they might judge me with. They might say that I don’t know what I’m talking about or I can’t understand concepts.” She often got polarizing responses when she did reveal her age ranging from “this is amazing that you were able to do something like this” to “what’s the rush, take your time.”
But to Rizvi, “if a child can advance but [they’re] a certain age, [it] shouldn’t be a barrier.” She emphasizes that there are other ways of achieving the same goals and that we should be open to that and our education system should allow for that flexibility. “It’s not a general rule I don’t think. It depends on personality, maturity, academic ability, can they handle the workload and it’s only after you get to know someone can you say, ‘I think you have the potential to excel and do more than what you’re doing right now.’”
I wanted to know more about what motivated her to succeed. Rizvi laughed and said, “that’s a deep one” before pausing to think about it. She owes her motivation to knowing her purpose and recognizing what the big picture goal was for her. “I know I want to grow. I know I want to make a difference, that’s my goal. I know I have to get through these stages. I won’t let any barriers stand in my way of reaching it.” The professors who connected and engaged with their students inspired Rizvi the most during her time at UTM. Rizvi also hopes to pursue a Ph.D. down the line.
After fast-tracking and realizing the advantages, as well as the barriers, she had to face, Rizvi discovered that the curriculum, teaching and learning program at OISE seemed to fit perfectly because she realized the learning model she experienced in high school is uncommon and to change that would be through studying education.
When talking about how people respond to her age, she says, “I’ve gotten ‘you must be a genius’ and I’ve always responded, ‘I’m telling you, I’m really not.’ What I’ve done isn’t extraordinary. It really is possible. At the same time, I’m not saying the path I’ve chosen is for everyone. Do your research. Choose wisely. Indecisiveness can be dangerous. Get the right information from the right people. There’s no one way to do something. Be a leader because you can do what others haven’t ever done.”
Rizvi encourages students to carve their own path and, instead of comparing themselves to others, to look inward to see how they can further grow. Rizvi was encouraged from a young age to always be the best at what she did and the constant support from her parents allowed her to look past any barriers that may materialize.
To conclude our interview, I ask how she overcame any stress and pressure. She replied, “Of course, we all doubt ourselves. I doubted myself. We all think, this is so frustrating—especially during exam season. But I thought to myself, I’ve gotten this far, I know I can go further.”