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16 and going on five degrees

Photo by Gretchen Burnton
Photo by Gretchen Burnton

Alexander "AJ" Gilman didn't want to leave Hebrew class.

He was accidentally put into a class so advanced that it was a year ahead of where his last class had left off.

But he liked the teacher and the intimate class size.

Wanting to encourage her son’s determination, his mother Susan spoke with AJ’s teacher about how he might go about staying in the class. It would take some outside tutoring and plenty of hard work.

AJ was onboard with the plan.

“He made up an entire year and moved forward. That’s just the kind of guy he is," Susan says.

Today, AJ is 16 years old with a junior standing at ASU.

He graduated from an early college program with  Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center. At the same time, he graduated from Paradise Valley Community College (PVCC) at 15 years old with 111 credit hours and four Associate degrees.

AJ didn’t let fear overcome him in his time at PVCC. He learned that you just have to be yourself, be comfortable and open to talking to others.

“In college, the material was a little more advanced and sometimes the discussions got a little more in-depth,” AJ says while noting the differences between his college and high school classes. “It was interesting seeing the two dynamics and getting to be a part of both of them.”

He also made sure to get involved with clubs in order to bridge the gap between himself and his older classmates.

“I became treasurer of the student council of the college. That helped me make friends,” AJ says.

Now at ASU, AJ has shown that his academic determination has grown stronger over the years. He is furthering his studies in business, science, arts and general studies.

AJ lives on campus and is attending Barrett, the Honors College and the W.P. Carey School of Business Leaders Academy. His mother, a lawyer and adjunct professor of law at ASU, supports his accelerated process.

“Part of me misses him, but I know he’s ready and that’s what makes it okay. He’s enjoying being there, he wants to be there," she says.

In the midst of talking about AJ’s accelerated education, Susan stops to recount another story about AJ when he was just nine years old. The two loved playing a game where she would give AJ court case scenarios and AJ would act as judge.

“He would say, give me a case, give me a case, I’ll be the judge.”

Once, she gave AJ a case where a man went to a gas station and pumped his car full of gas. When the man realized he didn’t have the money to pay, he drove off without telling the store he’d pay them later.

The police caught the man and arrested him. They brought him to AJ, the judge.

“What would you do?” she asked 10-year-old AJ. “What do you decide?”

Young AJ explained that he would take the man’s car and drive it around and around in a parking lot until he ran out of gas. His justification: The gas wasn’t really his because he didn’t pay for it, so he shouldn’t have it.

He also figured he would help the man in two ways. Young AJ said he would make the man do community service working at Taco Bell until he made enough money to pay back the gas. Working at Taco Bell meant the man would now have a job and would be able to pay for gas the next time.

“I thought, what a great answer,” Susan says.

While AJ is unsure of where he’ll go after ASU, he’s got his eyes set on Harvard or Stanford. He says he hopes to become a lawyer and, eventually, a judge.

In between his academics, AJ enjoys fencing, saber fencing, Magic the Gathering and playing Xbox with his roommate.

“I know I’m 16. I don’t let my age define me," he says. "I’m a junior at ASU, I’m a student, I’m a Sun Devil. We’re all Sun Devils.”

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that AJ attended a dual-enrollment program with Paradise Valley High School. His school was actually a charter school with AAEC-PV. The correction has been made.

Reach the writer at or via Twitter @gretchenburnton.

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