When Eugene Volokh was 9 years old, his father sought out Michel Melkanoff at UCLA.
"My son's a genius," Vladimir Volokh told the UCLA professor.
"I've heard that before," Melkanoff replied.
"He's studying differential equations on his own," the father said.
"Now that's interesting," Melkanoff conceded.
Eugene Volokh was 12 when he matriculated at UCLA in 1980. Now a 23-year-old law student, Volokh was among the first of some 30 prodigies who have bypassed high school and gone directly to UCLA thanks to an informal program that accepts greatly gifted freshmen as young as 12.
Conventional wisdom--and the film "Little Man Tate"--suggests that young geniuses have a dreadful time adjusting to college life. Not in his experience, says Melkanoff, 68, an emeritus professor of engineering and computer science who has been helping bring gifted children to the campus for more than a decade.
According to Melkanoff, the social dislocation of being a Wunderkind on a college campus is usually far less traumatic than the academic dislocation of being one in an ordinary elementary or secondary school classroom.
Eugene Volokh agrees. At an age when many children are preoccupied with skateboards and Saturday morning cartoons, he was happy on the Westwood campus. He was intrigued by the subject matter of his college classes as he had never been before, he recalls, and his UCLA classmates were kinder than his pre-college peers had been. Volokh wonders if his adjustment might have been harder if he had been a little older. But as a pre-adolescent collegian, he says, laughing, "I was so out of it I didn't realize how out of it I was."
Melkanoff remembers that Volokh did extremely well despite the fact that "he had no compunction about interrupting in the middle of a lecture."
"I was an unholy terror," Volokh says. In fact, despite his youth, Volokh was an outstanding student who graduated with a bachelor of science in mathematics and computer science in three years. At 12, he also started a computer software company with his programmer father. He continues to be active in the business and is also in the top tier of his law school class.
Many of the UCLA youngsters are dazzling in science and mathematics, but a few are talented writers or show precocious ability in the social sciences. And the young geniuses come from varied ethnic backgrounds. (Volokh is from a Russian-Jewish family that tried to hide their son's abilities from Soviet authorities for fear the family would not be allowed to emigrate).
Early admission to UCLA is usually initiated by parents who learn about the program through word of mouth. "This is one thing I've never understood--how they come to me," Melkanoff says. The Early College Admissions Program is an informal, unballyhooed one, with no budget for scholarships, let alone advertising. And yet parents find it, driven by their sometimes desperate desire to find a setting in which their special children can flourish. On several occasions grandparents have approached Melkanoff, asking if there is a place at UCLA for their children's remarkable child.
In almost every case the adults are both proud and concerned, fearful that their children are wasting time or worse in schools unequipped to deal with them. Even the brightest parents are often stumped as how best to help children "who are swans in a family of ducks," says Melkanoff. What to do with a child prodigy is no less a problem for being one almost any parent would love to have. And solving that problem is especially tough in a culture such as this one that does little to accommodate genius.
Like many other parents of remarkable children, Gary and Arek Gegalian of Mar Vista were dissatisfied with what the public schools offered their oldest daughter, Beatrice. The Gegalians (they are of Armenian descent, born in Syria and Egypt, respectively) had known Beatrice was extraordinary from the time she was a toddler.
Gary Gegalian recalls asking a friend's 10-year-old if she knew how much 8 times 8 was. The older girl didn't, but 2-year-old Beatrice did. "At that time she barely walked or talked," her father says. "But she did something with her fingers behind her back and said, '64.' "
Gegalian discovered the early admissions program, and Beatrice entered UCLA at age 14. She graduated three years later with a bachelor of science in biochemistry. Now 23, she continues at UCLA, where she is completing both medical school and work on a doctorate in biochemistry.
The Gegalians' middle daughter, Karin, entered UCLA at 16 after two years of high school. Now 19, she is finishing up in biochemistry and considering graduate programs. This fall, their youngest, Armin, is a 14-year-old freshman at UCLA, where, she says, thanks to her older sisters, "I think I adjusted better than the typical freshman."
Extraordinary intelligence is an obvious criterion for early acceptance at UCLA. Willingness to work hard is another. But Melkanoff says he also looks for students who are unhappy in their current school situation. "If you are happy where you are, I'm not going to touch you," he says.
Gloria Nathanson, the associate director for undergraduate admissions, who works closely with Melkanoff, says that is the case with a 12-year-old candidate from Palmdale. UCLA would take the boy now, but he has decided to get his associate degree at the community college he currently attends. As Nathanson explains, the child, who skipped both junior high and high school, "never graduated from anything, and he wants to graduate from community college."
Parental support is another prerequisite for the program. Melkanoff says that most of the students have well-educated parents (although not necessarily wealthy ones) who are committed to doing whatever they can to help their gifted children. "I feel more than proud," explains Gary Gegalian. "I feel some obligation. The Lord has given some potential, some capability. My responsibility is to help my children fulfill that."
One thing many of the parents must do is chauffeur their youngsters to and from the campus. As Melkanoff points, "Most of them can't drive, they're so young."
There is no vast support system for the young students once they are accepted. The program gets no special funds. Melkanoff lets the students know his door is always open, and many turn to him for advice on whose courses to take and whatever else perplexes them. Volokh, who still visits his mentor regularly, recalls that Melkanoff helped him with his physics homework.
Most of the students quickly become self-sufficient, Melkanoff says. "Within a couple of years, they have their wings. They grow on their own. They don't need me anymore."
According to Nathanson, the success rate of the program is "about 98%."
In recent years, more and more colleges and universities have been accepting very young, very gifted students. But Melkanoff is distressed at society's stinginess with those whose divergence from the norm is in the direction of genius. Why not cultivate and reward the best and the brightest? he wonders.
"An investment in super-bright kids is probably the cheapest investment we can make for the return we get for it," he says. "How many millions would it be worth to discover one Einstein a year?"
Meanwhile, Melkanoff has heard about a remarkable little boy in Indonesia. He's an 8-year-old wizard at math, and his parents understand there is a special program at UCLA. . . .