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The Future is Bright for Indiana University's 15-Year-Old Graduate


Khaya Njumbe.Khaya Njumbe.On May 8, Khaya Njumbe walked across the commencement stage at Indiana University (IU) Northwest. At 15 years old, he is one of Indiana’s youngest ever bachelor’s degree recipients.

Two weeks later, he will walk across the stage to receive his high school diploma, adding one last credential to the collection he’s been building since he was 11 years old, when he took his first dual enrollment courses. He would go on to earn three associate degrees in general studies, liberal arts, and biology.

These degrees allowed Njumbe the opportunity to transfer to a four-year institution to study for his bachelor’s degree, said Dr. Jack Bloom, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at IU and one of Njumbe’s instructors.

“The rule is you can’t go to college until you have a high school degree. Now, let me say, that’s a rule which is not meant for some people,” said Bloom. “He’s a pretty impressive kid.”

Bloom first got to know Njumbe in his two upper-level courses, "Race and Ethnic Relations" and "The Civil Rights Movement". At first, Bloom assumed Njumbe was like any other high schooler taking one of his courses through dual credit. But as the months went by, Bloom was struck by Njumbe’s level of participation, interest, and analysis.

“I’m a sociologist but also an historian, so I go through the history of race in America starting with the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and trying to explain how slavery worked, how powerful slave holders were at the time, all that. What I didn’t really realize at first was that he was very struck by this,” said Bloom. “He’s 15 years old. He reads all this stuff, he hears it, and he understands it. He makes good, trenchant questions.”

Njumbe’s parents always knew their son was different. He was reading flashcards and reciting words from Your Child Can Read! DVDs at 13 months old. They struggled to find the right school for him in which he could excel, even homeschooling him for a period of time.

Khaya Njumbe plays piano, which he taught himself at age three.Khaya Njumbe plays piano, which he taught himself at age three.“In eighth grade, I was bored — teachers would tell me not to answer questions, or even tell me I was spoiling it, because I was ruining it for others. It wasn’t a very good environment for me,” said Njumbe.

He finally found a home at the 21st Century Charter School in Gary, Indiana, where he became a high school freshman at 11 years old. Their dual credit opportunities with Ivy Tech Community College gave him the chance to jump-start his future.

Njumbe’s ability to teach himself and process new information isn’t just restricted to math, science, or other STEM courses, which he said are his favorite. He taught himself classical music on the piano between ages 3 and 4. He began teaching himself Mandarin Chinese because of his interest in Taekwondo. In an effort to find a place that would appropriately challenge him, his parents placed him in a Chinese school, where lessons were taught entirely in Mandarin.

But Njumbe is humble. When asked if he would say he is fluent in the language, he hesitates.

“In a way I’m fluent, but I still go [to lessons] every week,” he said. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

It’s that combination of self-motivation, determination, and natural ability that has been key to Njumbe’s early successes in the world. Njumbe says his ultimate goal is to be an orthopedic surgeon, and if that happens, Bloom said, his work could turn him into a “major researcher.”

“There’s no way to know, but it’s clear he’s going to have an impact [whatever he does],” said Bloom.

Dr. Jack Bloom, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at IU and one of Njumbe’s instructors.Dr. Jack Bloom, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at IU and one of Njumbe’s instructors.Njumbe said he’s too young to start medical school. So instead, he’s contemplating getting his master's and even his doctorate degrees in public health first. For now, he’s just happy to have completed his bachelor’s degree.

“I can finally breathe a bit,” said Njumbe.

With his new down time, Njumbe will enjoy his hobbies, whether that’s an old hobby like music, or a new one like tumbling. He joined IU’s tumbling team just over a year ago, and they cheered him on at his graduation. Afterward, they joined the family and friend celebratory dinner, performing stunts and jumps outside on the asphalt while waiting for their table.

Bloom said he watched the team tumbling, and he worried that Njumbe might fall and hit his head. Instead, Bloom watched him do a backflip effortlessly, impressed by the young man’s ability to conquer all challenges he faces, even gravity.

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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