Teenage grad student followed passion to Tech

Photo by Sho Kitamura

She answers her first college question and the entire class twists in their chairs, craning their necks to find the source of a such a young yet unafraid voice. All the class found was 12-year-old Tesca Fitzgerald, embarking on her college career.

Now 16 years old, Fitzgerald is a graduate student at Tech. She is working towards a PhD in Cognitive Science and Human Robot Interaction and hopes to graduate by the time she is 22.

Fitzgerald started out being home-schooled at her home in Portland, Ore. Her parents taught her year round and at a quick pace, which made advancing easier. At 10, she and her older sister began taking online high-school classes.

Her father noticed their classes were equivalent to first- and second-year college courses and so Fitzgerald began the process of transferring to community college.

After community college, she entered Portland State University and graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science. When it came to graduate school, Fitzgerald chose to capitalize not on her age, but on her merits. According to her, she didn’t even mention her age in essays or questions.

“I didn’t write a thing [about my age] in the application. I just put my birthdate. I don’t view just being a younger student as interesting in itself,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald, instead, wanted to show that her fascination in cognitive sciences and her years of experience with robots proved she was a deserving applicant.

“I think it’s more important to value  challenging experiences rather than age. I think that anyone could overcome challenges, even enjoy the experience, if doing work that they are passionate about. For me, that passion is research, hence why I challenged myself to become a graduate student,” said Fitzgerald.

Now that she is at Tech, Fitzgerald’s life is similar to any Tech students’. “I always joke I don’t have an average day,” said Fitzgerald. But still, she can almost always be found in class, in the lab or at meetings.

When she’s not working hard as a grad student, Fitzgerald heads over to the CRC where she plays racquetball, and she usually finds time to lie down and do “absolutely nothing.”

Fitzgerald does not think of graduate school as “work,” though.

“[Graduate school] takes up all your time, but I enjoy that. To me, its not doing work all day and then getting time off,” Fitzgerald said.

While Tech undergraduate students work on a semester basis, Fitzgerald explains that graduate school work is more year round, much like how her home-school curriculum was structured.

Fitzgerald’s reason for entering graduate school at such a young age is simple—she wanted to do what she loved as soon as she could.

“I was lucky to realize what I am passionate about at such an early age,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald also plans to start a career in academia after graduating from Tech, hopefully as a research professor.

She also maintains that her parents did not ever push her towards graduating early.

“We have an amazing relationship. They did so much to get to this point where I am in a grad program on the other side of the country…. They’re not [overbearing] parents or anything,” Fitzgerald said.

Despite her quick success in academia, Fitzgerald does not feel she has missed out on any adolescent experiences.

“That’s the question people ask the most. I really don’t know that I did [miss out.] And I did go to prom, three times, and I had a fantastic time,” Fitzgerald said.

According to her, making friends is not a struggle either. While Fitzgerald “does not usually” make friends with people her age, she does find friends in classes, through research and “just randomly.”

Fitzgerald also says that many people react to her age by saying things like “Now I feel bad!” but she says that reaction makes her feel equally bad. Making other feel unaccomplished is the opposite of what she is trying to do. Fitzgerald hopes to inspire people to study what they are passionate about instead of studying what they think they should be studying.

“Once you find what it is you are passionate about, it’s not work. I am just really excited I was able to find that,” said Fitzgerald.