In a navy blue cap and gown surrounded by hundreds of ecstatic graduates awaiting their names to be called, one student in particular stood out among her peers. While bouncing her leg, 15-year-old Samantha Holland was filled with anxiety as she prepared to receive both her Associate of Arts and Associate of Science from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College on May 9 as a member of Phi Theta Kappa with a 4.0 GPA and highest honors. What sets Holland apart from the other graduates is the fact that she is only 15 years old and has yet to graduate from high school.
"She's among the youngest to graduate from MGCCC," Cindy Holland, Samantha's mother and main inspiration said.
Samantha, who is from Lucedale, is currently a junior at Mississippi School of Mathematics in Science in Columbus. She will graduate from MSMS in May 2020, and she believes her high school graduation will make her feel similar to how she felt at her graduation from MGCCC.
"I was really nervous," Samantha said. "Probably as nervous as I'm going to be at my high school graduation, because it's a big step in my life and all new things are nerve wracking."
Her journey began when she was a young child in Sebastopol, California. She advanced two grades ahead within kindergarten, first grade and second grade, where these grades were combined into one class.
Robert Folker, who is from Sebastopol, had known Samantha before she became one of his students because he had taught her older twin brothers. Because of Samantha's success in kindergarten and first grade, Cindy and Folker thought Samantha advancing second grade would benefit her more than if she were to complete her second grade year.
"So the idea that Cindy came up to me with was, 'Do you think she could skip second grade and come to you as a third grader,'" Folker said. "And I knew Samantha and I talked with her and I talked with mom and said, 'Yeah there's absolutely no reason to not move her ahead to third grade, so we had a meeting with the principal and several other teachers. It took a little convincing on mom's part and my part to say really Samantha doesn't need second grade. She's already covered the material. Let's move her into my third grade class."
Normally, Folker would not advise for a student to skip a grade; however, Samantha was an exception.
"It was evident that she was not your typical kid coming along," Folker said. "So skipping a grade, which I normally wouldn't recommend just for developmental reasons, for Samantha seemed appropriate, and it was totally fine for her. She didn't struggle at all."
During her time in Sebastopol, Samantha had Folker as her third, fourth and fifth grade teacher and she said she considers him to be her most influential teacher.
After their time in Sebastopol, Samantha and her family moved to Lucedale in 2013 to be closer to her father's family. While this was a big transition in itself, being so young in such advanced courses proved to be a bit of a challenge, because her accomplishments were seen as an oddity to others.
"It wasn't abnormal because I've always grown up with older people around me," Samantha said. "Because of me being two grades ahead, all of my friends were two years older or two years younger than me anyway. When I moved to Mississippi, it was kind of hard making friends because it was like I was kinda the oddball out for a little while. Eventually everyone kind of just looked past it, but it does take a while for people to look past it sometimes."
Samantha began taking high school courses in eighth grade through Mississippi's Virtual Public School, which she took advantage of with the help of her mother.
Taking these classes that are available to any student starting in sixth grade can allow students to receive two carnegie units a school year.
According to Cindy, Samantha received guidance to navigate her academic direction from George County Middle School teacher Connie Eubanks. Eubanks first met Samantha when she was in the seventh grade. Eubanks said she encouraged both Cindy and Samantha for Samantha's academic success.
"I spoke to Cindy about preparing Samantha for MSMS because I felt like it would meet her academic needs," Eubanks said. "I also told Cindy to be a strong advocate for Samantha in being able to do the classes and activities she needed to be a success."
By the end of Samantha's freshman year at George County High School, she had over 14 high school credits with the help of the online courses she took. According to MGCCC's website, students are eligible to begin dual enrollment if they have completed 14 college-preparatory courses and maintain a 3.0 grade point average.
Because of this, Samantha became one of 12 students in George County High School's collegiate academy.
"It started out with the collegiate academy, which was a new program at GCHS," Cindy said. "Twelve kids started the program. She started in her sophomore year because she had enough high school credits. She moved up to MSMS for her junior year of high school. I guess six of them graduated on the ninth if you count my daughter."
Between her sophomore year at George County High School and her junior year at MSMS, Samantha took six college classes in her free time. When she arrived to MSMS, she had already earned over 36 high school credits.
Along with the college credits she earned over last summer, Samantha participated in the College Board's College Level Examination Program.
"You take a test, and you can earn college credit at most colleges," Cindy said. "Over spring break this year, she ended up taking a CLEP exam for biology in which she earned eight units college credit in biology. She also took natural science and earned another six college credits for that. Over spring break, she earned 14 college credits, which put her over the top for earning her two degrees."
Because Cindy had moved here when Samantha was in middle school, she felt that she needed to research how to give her daughter the best education. This in turn has led Samantha to realize that her mother is the most influential person in her life.
"She has always pushed me to be the best. I am slightly self-motivated, but definitely a big factor of why I'm able to do this is my mom," Samantha said.
With the help of her mother, Samantha was able to miss a few days of school at MSMS to attend her graduation at MGCCC. While mentally preparing to receive her diplomas, Samantha had the opportunity to meet many people.
"So I met some pretty cool people because I was pretty social, which was out of the norm for me sometimes," Samantha said. "It was really cool to see everybody because I had someone next to me who had waited four years to finish their associate, and it was really cool to see how everybody came from different paths."
Samantha stands up and walks with her fellow classmates to stand in line. Finally, she heard what she had been yearning to hear, "Samantha Grace Holland." She marched across the stage and received her diploma from MGCCC before she travelled back to Columbus to take high school junior exams.
"I feel really accomplished and seeing some people beside me like some friends from my high school who graduated with it as well along with their senior," Samantha said. "It was really nice to think back on how all of us were struggling at one point doing this and getting essays done by 11:59; it is just really good to be at the finish line with people I knew."
Throughout Samantha's journey, Eubanks has become very proud of Samantha.
"She is a very intelligent and determined young lady," Eubanks said. "When she sets her mind to do something she does. I loved having Samantha as a student. She is very curious and has a need to know more. I know she will accomplish all her goals."
Like Eubanks, Folker is amazed with Samantha's achievements.
"It's highly unusual obviously, but she's a very dedicated learner and takes it all very seriously and has a wonderful sense of humor," Folker said. "So it's not like she's a serious kid, but she sets her mind on something, and it's not a problem at all for her to achieve. As I said, while it's remarkable, it's not surprising. Just given the nature of Samantha Holland."
On the next stop of her journey, Samantha aims to receive her bachelor's in which she will major in chemistry or biochemistry at Stanford University or Columbia University. Samantha is hopeful to then attend the Uniformed Armed Service Medical School, where she will serve in the Air Force. Samantha aspires to become a cardiothoracic surgeon.
"I know it's not going to come easy, and this may just help ease this along," Samantha said. "I keep looking towards the future and I just want to get there. I just have to work hard to get there."