Nondegree ASU student Carly Cairns smiles for the camera. She is wearing white pants, a black shirt, and black blazer with narrow vertical white stripes. She has long brown hair and is wearing makeup.

15-year-old student is beginning her college journey at ASU


Kimberly Koerth

Although she’s just 15 years old, Arizona native Carly Cairns chose to spend her first few months after graduating high school studying ancient Greek and Latin at Arizona State University. She’s currently enrolled as a nondegree student as part of a gap year before she officially begins her college career in fall 2021 at the University of Chicago. 

Cairns said her decision to dive into language classes through the School of International Letters and Cultures, even though they won’t count as academic credits toward her future degree, was fueled by her passion for lifelong learning. 

“Every experience is unique to the person, and it just comes down to what your priorities are. For me, that was academic challenge. For others, it may be a robust social scene, or a strong athletic culture,” Cairns said. “Everyone’s academic journey comes in all shapes and sizes." 

Her journey began at age 10, when she enrolled in the Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy, based on ASU’s West campus. Cairns advanced through the school’s Middle Years curriculum in just one year, moving on to the Cambridge IGCSE coursework at age 11 and the A-level program after that. In the process, she became the youngest student in the U.S. to receive a Cambridge AICE Diploma, though that was never her goal. 

“I hadn’t really sought to finish at a young age. I was just seeking a challenge and a good fit,” Cairns said. 

After graduating from the Herberger Young Scholars Academy in May just weeks after her 15th birthday and being named class valedictorian, Cairns resumed her ASU studies as a nondegree seeking student in the Zoom classrooms of Paul Arena and Sarah Bolmarcich, both lecturers in classics.

In Bolmarcich’s elementary ancient Greek class, students learn elements of ancient Greek grammar and apply their skills to read ancient Greek texts. Bolmarcich said she’s taught high school students before who were 17 or 18, but never someone as young as Cairns or as advanced in their academic career.

“Carly's one of the best students in the class, meticulous in her work and often asking for extra tips on how best to learn difficult Greek constructions,” Bolmarcich said. She noted that Cairns’ young age provides her with a head start on many of her peers. “It gives her a few extra years in life to enjoy this most beautiful of languages!” 

Cairns credits the support system of her family for her success. She was raised by a single mother and also has a close relationship with her grandfather, a constitutional law professor. They have helped her continue to challenge herself academically. When she’s not busy with her studies, she enjoys watching action movies with her family as well as playing the guitar and piano and acting in theater productions. 

In the spring, Cairns plans to continue her Greek studies and tackle an online writing class to better prepare her for her undergraduate coursework. After her year at ASU, she’ll pick back up at the University of Chicago, a school she chose for its rigorous curriculum and strong focus on the liberal arts. She’s also excited to move across the country and experience a new environment, though she’s a little familiar with the city already thanks to a summer program at Northwestern University. 

Cairns' current academic interests include history, democracy, criminal justice and constitutional law. She hopes to attend law school some day and her dream job would be to serve as a federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, which would put her at the forefront of some of the country’s most important cases. 

But all that is a few years in the future, though at her learning pace, perhaps not as far off as some might think. In the meantime, Cairns has third-declension Greek nouns to worry about, and she knows she might adjust her path as she discovers new academic passions. 

“I am prone to changing my mind often,” she said. “I think a broad liberal arts undergraduate experience will help me to explore and refine my interests. It’s exciting, really, and I definitely have time on my side.”