Getting an early start on college

COSTA MESA — Harrison Chan, 17, and Neal Lawton, 18, might have missed out on football games, but they walked out of high school with a lot more.

The two Costa Mesa residents are on their way to UC Berkeley this month after earning their high school diploma and associate's degree at the same time — and the two were named valedictorians at both schools.

"I definitely wanted to get out ahead of the game," Chan said.

Chan and Lawton graduated in June from Newport-Mesa Unified School District's Early College High School and in May from Coastline Community College.

Early College is a joint venture between N-MUSD and Coastline that gives students the opportunity to get a high school diploma while earning an associate's or a vocational certificate, or completing two years of college credits toward a bachelor's. The school opened in August 2006.

"I can definitely say it's different from a normal school," Chan said.

Although the school was in its first year when the two were in eighth grade, they both decided to try something beyond the traditional high school.

For Lawton, the appeal was in trying college classes early. Back then, he didn't even know what an AA degree was, but that quickly changed.

"After getting in there, you start getting serious about what you are looking forward to in college …" Lawton said. "They give you all the resources there, so as long as you tackle it, you can do it."

Counselors assist students with not only the classes they need, but applying for college and financial aid, Lawton said.

The school is so small — their class had about 50 students — that students become close to the teachers, making them more approachable for help and interaction, Chan said.

"It's a lot more fun in the classroom, I think," Lawton said. "It becomes a lot like a family. That's probably cliche, but you get to know everybody."

Chan said he feels better prepared for university-level courses and the college courses gave him an idea of how much work he has in store for him at Berkeley.

He also got a head start.

"It definitely saved me a lot of time and more than a half semester [at Berkeley]," Chan said.

Lawton said he is going into Berkeley as either a sophomore or junior — he isn't sure yet.

Either way, he is confident his high school experience isn't going to fail him.

"Knowing that I've taken college classes before," Lawton said, "it's a little more reassuring that I'm not going to bomb my first semester."

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