Math, Science Whiz, 15, Drops Out of High School, Drops Into M.I.T.

Times Staff Writer

The thin, dark-haired boy walking on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge could easily be mistaken for someone's kid brother. Few freshmen would suspect that he is a classmate headed for the physics lab.

At 15, Jolly Chen of Arcadia is one of the 10 youngest students to enter M.I.T. this semester. And he does not even have his high school diploma. Jolly's counselor at Arcadia High School had to petition the school board to get permission to apply the credits he is earning at M.I.T. toward his high school diploma, which the teen-ager expects to receive at the end of this semester.

Jolly, who hopes to get a bachelor's degree in computer engineering, said he selected M.I.T. because of its reputation for excellence in science and engineering.

"For computer science, it's definitely the place to be," he said.

There was probably less red tape involved in getting into M.I.T. than getting permission to leave his high school. According to Marilee Jones, M.I.T.'s associate director of admissions, the institute does not require students to have high school diplomas, and Jolly had completed M.I.T.'s basic math and English requirements. His 4.0 high school grade-point average plus a score of 770 out of a possible 800 on the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test did not hurt, either.

A math and science whiz, Jolly has been amazing teachers, counselors and schoolmates ever since he moved with his family to the United States from Hong Kong in 1977.

Skipped Three Grades

Jolly, who was born in Peking, did not speak a word of English when he came to this country at 7, but he soon excelled in his studies, teachers said. He did so well that over the years, he skipped the 2nd, 8th and 12th grades.

His junior high school counselor said that his teachers were so delighted with his promise as a sixth-grader at Bonita Park Elementary School in Arcadia that they persuaded the PTA to buy him a bicycle so he could ride to the local junior high school for advanced math classes.

At that time, a counselor remembers that Jolly could barely reach the pedals. But the determined 10-year-old rode during his lunch hour to 1st Avenue Junior High School, where he took algebra, a course normally taught to ninth-graders.

"He was never late," said the teacher, who added that workers at the junior high school would call his elementary school to let them know Jolly had arrived safely.

At 11, Jolly took part in the University of Arizona's Project for the Academically Precocious, a program for seventh- and eighth-graders who scored in the top 2% of their class. The program was designed to put gifted students in touch with other talent search programs around the country and encourage them to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test early. Jolly said that at that time, he scored 1,100, about average for high school seniors taking the test.

Maximum Course Load

As a freshman at M.I.T., Jolly is taking the maximum course load allowed, with classes in computer programming, physics, chemistry, calculus and macroeconomics. He also is working six hours a week as a researcher for two materials sciences professors under the university's undergraduate research opportunity program.

"It's a lot tougher than high school," Jolly said. "You get humble real fast here." But his good study habits seem to be serving him well.

"He's more studious than we are," said Tom Barrada, 18, of Pomona, one of Jolly's two roommates at Burtin House, an M.I.T. dormitory. Jolly says he spends most of his time going to class and studying, but finds time to be active in his church, work on the M.I.T. yearbook and play chess, one of his favorite pastimes. His father, Simpson Chen, says Jolly is one of the top players in the nation in his age group.

Jolly says he does not have a girlfriend and is not dating, because "there's not that much time." He added that the 3-1 male-female ratio at M.I.T. also works against him.

He says he has no time to be troubled by homesickness. His mother calls him once a week to keep him up with what's going on with the family. He didn't get home for Thanksgiving but is spending the Christmas holidays with his family.

Jolly seems almost embarrassed by the attention his accomplishments have drawn. "I'm a normal person. I'm not very special," he said.

But his junior high counselor, Lynn Campbell, disagrees. "Ordinary geniuses like us look dull next to Jolly," she said facetiously.

Fascinated by UFOs

As a small boy, Jolly was fascinated by everything from unidentified flying objects to the stock market, his father said. "Every night he would watch for UFO's."

His love of the stock market prompted him at an early age to regularly read the Wall Street Journal and watch "Wall Street Week" on public television.

"He always tells my mom how to buy houses with no money down," his 18-year-old sister Cora said. "When he was 8 or 9, he always kept track of gold prices."

His father was so impressed with Jolly's business sense that he gave him $1,500 to buy some stocks.

"If it goes well, it's your money," Simpson Chen told his son. Jolly invested the money in 100 shares of AT&T; stock and in just a few months had made a tidy $500 profit.

"My ultimate goal is to make a lot of money," Jolly said. "In the sense that I want to be well off, not in the sense that I want to be greedy," he added.

Father Schooled in China

Simpson Chen, an engineering graduate of the Chinese University of Science and Technology, is an electronics technician for NDC Systems, a Duarte-based electronics manufacturing firm. His mother, Dinah, who worked as an obstetrician in China after she graduated from the Medical Institute of Peking, now works as an assembler at NDC.

"He had parents who explored his strengths, who never held him back," said Carolyn Chaille, Jolly's junior high school math teacher.

One of Jolly's high school counselors, Max Kramer, added, "He never seemed to me like a driven kid, like mommy and daddy were pushing him all the way."

Part of Jolly's tuition at M.I.T. comes from a $2,000 scholarship from NDC, where he worked summers as a computer programmer.

"Jolly was doing programming for us when he was only 14 years old, when his legs wouldn't even touch the floor," said Bert Fishman, president of NDC.

Well-Rounded Personality

Fishman said that although most of the very bright young people he has encountered seem to excel in only one area, Jolly is well rounded.

"I don't know what he'll end up doing in life, but he will do something significant," Fishman said.

Jolly's former teachers and counselors are equally effusive in their praise.

"I was struck by his absolutely delightful personality," said his junior high school counselor, Campbell. "He came across as an everyday, wonderful, down-to-earth kid.

"He even got into trouble a couple of times," Campbell said, laughing. "Just boy trouble--talking too much in class. Thank heavens he was not perfect."

"He was probably more motivated than any youngster that I've ever had," Chaille said. "A lot of the groundwork for algebra he did for himself.

"Once the older kids got over the shock of this little kid in class with them, they would go ask him for help. And every time people asked, he was more than willing to help."

No Superiority Attitude

That gregariousness is the quality that sets Jolly apart from run-of-the-mill prodigies, said many of those who have come in contact with him.

He never conveyed a sense of superiority, Chaille said. "I don't think he felt that he was better. He's not overconfident."

Over the years, Jolly has helped his older sister Cora with her schoolwork. At one point, the two were in the same accelerated chemistry class.

"I'm pretty used to it now," Cora, a freshman at the University of California, Irvine, said of the attention her precocious brother has attracted. She said she was jealous "in a way, when it all started."

But she soon realized the advantages of having such a bright brother. "I always had some one to ask." Cora said. "It was like having a 24-hour tutor."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World