Her brother got an associate’s degree at 11. She graduated even younger.

<p>While watching her 11-year-old brother get his<b> </b>associate’s degree<b> </b>from a California community college last year, Athena Elling was planning how she would graduate at an even younger age.</p> <p>So, a few weeks after her brother, Tycho Elling, became the youngest student to graduate from Irvine Valley College in May 2023, Athena enrolled in courses at the same school.<b> </b>Like her brother, Athena began taking high school-level courses early and then added community college classes through a dual-enrollment program. If she completed them within a year, she would be about five months younger than her brother was when he walked across the stage.</p> <p>“I would have bragging rights at dinner, and that’ll be enough for me,” Athena’s mother, Christina Chow, recalled her daughter telling a counselor.</p> <p>On Thursday, Athena accomplished that goal in an oversized blue gown. The 11-year-old graduated cum laude from the school in Irvine, Calif., about 40 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, with an associate’s degree in liberal arts.</p> <p>But the degree wasn’t Athena’s main motivation. Her real accomplishment set in during commencement, when the college’s president, John Hernandez, said in a speech that she had broken the school’s record as the youngest graduate.</p> <p>“It was sort of the finalized moment that - woohoo! - I beat [Tycho],” Athena told The Washington Post.</p> <p>Athena said she competes with Tycho in everything, including cooking and taekwondo. She wanted to be faster than him when they were younger, and she has long hoped to become taller than him.</p> <p>Now the family keeps track of who wins in card games, board games and push-up competitions. Whoever wins the most decides where the family will eat for dinner on weekends. Athena likes Whole Foods Market; Tycho prefers Chili’s.</p> <p>When he was 9 in 2020, Tycho had passed all the high school-level math classes his charter school offered, so his teachers suggested he take math classes at Irvine Valley College. He left the charter school the next year and dual-enrolled at the community college while he was home-schooled.</p> <p>Athena, in sixth grade, enrolled in a few classes at Irvine in summer 2022.</p> <p>“I knew that Tycho could do it,” said Athena, who was 9 at the time. “I was like, ‘It can’t be too hard.’”</p> <p>She left the charter school a few months later and began home-schooling. Her parents reclassed her to ninth grade as she continued taking community college courses.</p> <p>Diane Oaks, the executive director of marketing and creative services at Irvine Valley College, said in a statement to The Post that high school students can take classes at the college if their schools and parents grant permission. Athena’s and Tycho’s program allowed them to take up to 11 credits a semester, Oaks said.</p> <p>Chow said her children began reading mystery and science fiction novels, including “The Westing Game” and “The Martian,” when they were very young, but she isn’t certain how they became so smart so quickly.<b> </b>She and her husband made it clear to Athena and Tycho that there was no pressure to proceed with the college classes. The decision was up to each child, Chow said.</p> <p>“We don’t like to stand in their way, and we think that they need to be allowed freedom to explore,” Chow said. “And so, you know, we just asked that whatever it is they do, they take it seriously. And Athena often takes everything she does very, very, very seriously.”</p> <p>Athena started at Irvine by taking psychology and Chinese classes that didn’t have prerequisites. After acing those, she progressed to computer science and writing courses.</p> <p>Tycho took many of his classes online from the family’s home in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., but Athena, a self-described extrovert, enjoyed in-person learning. Chow drove her to and from campus a few times a week.</p> <p>Chow sat outside her daughter’s classrooms at first, but after a semester, Athena wanted to roam campus alone. Oaks said in a statement that dual-enrolled students “have access to all resources on campus.”</p> <p>At first, Athena said she kept her head down while walking to classes and sunk into her classroom seats, not wanting to stand out among 20-year-old students. But that was hard to pull off. Midway through one of her first classes, a professor singled out Athena to ask whether she was a student.</p> <p>Oaks said more than 3,400 K-12 students took classes at Irvine Valley College this past school year. Those students can take classes that don’t have prerequisites, or they can show on their transcripts that they have taken the high school or college classes required to enroll in advanced courses, Oaks said.</p> <p>While Athena didn’t have much in common with her classmates, they connected over movies - she enjoyed discussing classics “Do the Right Thing,” “Psycho” and “Casablanca” after she watched them in a college film class. She became friendly with some students and learned that many were studying while working jobs or handling marriages.</p> <p>“She’s been exposed to a much larger network of people,” Chow said, “and that has helped her not be in a bubble.”</p> <p>Chow said Athena still has a typical childhood outside of school. She sees friends her age at dancing, acting, music and taekwondo classes. She loves visiting Legoland and riding the Guardians of the Galaxy ride at Disneyland.</p> <p>In school, Athena remained competitive with Tycho. She was proud to receive a better grade than him by 1<b> </b>percent in a gender studies class, and she tried to fill up her notebooks faster than him.</p> <p>In May 2023, she sat in the audience<b> </b>on a campus field to watch Tycho graduate with an associate’s degree in math.</p> <p>“You have to give time to be proud of them,” Athena said about Tycho, “and then you have to give time to beat them.”</p> <p>A few weeks later, she signed up for a biology lab and an advanced writing class to ensure she would graduate at a younger age than Tycho this spring.</p> <p>Athena ordered the smallest gown available. But at barely 4-foot-11, she said she was still “drowning in it.”</p> <p>As she sat in front of the stage Thursday among 1,504 graduates, Hernandez asked her to stand<b> </b>for acknowledgment as professors and students clapped.</p> <p>Tycho, who watched from the audience, said he was happy to see Athena break his record.</p> <p>“She’s a lot more competitive with me than I am,” said<b> </b>Tycho, 12. “She’s happy if she wins; I’m just happy if I get to do my math.”</p> <p>Tycho is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree<i> </i>in math at the University of California at Irvine. Athena is taking more classes at Irvine Valley College, where she wants to earn associate’s degrees in psychology, theater and music.</p> <p>Many colleges require students to have a high school diploma or a GED to be admitted. Chow said Athena probably will take an unusual path by getting her GED years from now. Students must be 18 or older in California to test for the diploma.</p> <p>Athena eventually wants to be admitted to a more competitive four-year college than Tycho. If she enrolls at an Ivy League school, for example, Athena said she would be “indestructible.”</p>