Fairfield teen graduates from Warde and Yale -- at same time
By the second grade, Will Sawin was splitting his day between Stratfield Elementary School and what was then Fairfield High School. By the fifth grade, he was taking classes at Yale University, having determined Fairfield University was just too easy.
On May 23, at age 17, Sawin graduated -- with distinction -- from Yale with a double major in math and economics. Later this month, he will collect his high school diploma from Fairfield Warde High School.
Some might consider this sequence out of order.
"It's the order that was right for me. The normal order doesn't work for me," said Sawin, leaning back in a chair on the front porch of the house where he grew up, on a rare afternoon when he wasn't rushing to catch the 10:19 train between classes at Warde and Yale.
Sawin, a lanky teenager who speaks quickly, gets through the semester with a single, slightly worn blue notebook of which one section is reserved for the AP Modern European History class he takes at Warde and the other for Galois Theory, an advanced algebra class at Yale.
Ed Vytlacil, an economics professor at Yale, was shocked to discover Will was so young, particularly since he considers Sawin one of the most impressive students he has ever taught in 10 years at Stanford, Columbia and now Yale.
"It was wonderful to have Will in my class. He is one of the most enthusiastic, most engaged, and most intellectually curious students I have ever had the pleasure to teach," Vytlacil said.
At Warde, Sawin is sometimes teased by Jim D'Acosta, a history teacher who was once his cub master at Stratfield School, for taking 10 years to make it through high school. In all seriousness, D'Acosta said, Sawin has had one of the most remarkable academic careers in the history of Fairfield public schools.
Sawin said Warde High gave him the opportunity to be with students his own age and on the fencing team the last four years.
When he's not at school, Sawin likes to play Magic, a collectible card game invented by a mathematician.
Like other seniors at Warde, Sawin's college plans are scrawled in the corner of the white board in Stephen O'Brien's AP Modern European History classroom. He is going to Princeton, his father's alma mater. But unlike other seniors, Sawin is attending Princeton to begin graduate studies in mathematics. It will be his first time as a full-time, on-campus university student. He chose Princeton over the University of Chicago, Columbia, Stanford, University of California at Berkeley, and Rutgers.
"At Princeton, I liked the culture and kind of people that were there, exactly my kind of people," he said.
His father, Stephen Sawin, is a math professor at Fairfield University. Lisa Sawin, his mother, helps design websites.
Intelligence runs in the family. Sawin's sister Emma, 14 months his senior, is completing her sophomore year as a math major at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. His younger brother, Oliver, is a high school junior. Emma and Oliver both skipped fifth grade. But of the three, the Yale Sawin was the one who learned for fun, said his mom.
Sawin said his mom taught him algebra in the third grade. His mom laughs at the suggestion. She remembers one weekend when she taught her children -- ages 8, 7 and 5 at the time -- how to make jelly donuts, then how to graph lines and float points in the garden. That was the extent of the algebra lesson, she said.
"We were not the flash card parents. We were the sit in the mud parents," Sawin said.
She and her husband chose preschools where play was emphasized over curriculum. None of her kids were reading in their cribs, but had books read to them. Scientific American sat on the coffee table. At dinner, the talk was of "science-y stuff," said Sawin.
She remembers her son's nursery school teacher at conference time describing a four-year-old who was always "busy thinking." In first grade, he was reading chapter books. That year, Sawin asked his mom what was inside a cell. She checked out a high school biology textbook from the library for him, figuring he would look at the pictures. Instead, he read the book cover to cover.
That summer, Will sat and talked for hours with a biology professor they had invited for dinner.
"She later called me up and said Will understands college biology better than anyone I ever taught," Sawin recalled.
All of second grade, Will went to Fairfield U. to "talk biology" with the professor. And once his second grade teacher had surrendered every book on the shelf to Sawin to read, she arranged with district officials to have him start taking classes at the high school. Eileen Doherty, now retired, accepted Sawin into her junior American Literature class when he was 8. She remembers a boy whose feet didn't reach the floor. Doherty positioned older students on either side of Sawin with instructions to grab the chair to keep him from toppling over when he popped out of it to answer a question.
By third grade, Roger Fiondella, then the district' math curriculum leader, got Yale involved. Lisa Sawin remembers the late Serge Lang, a prominent Yale mathematician, driving to Stratfield school in his sports car to eat lunch with her son in the cafeteria. Will enjoyed going to Yale to talk to Lang. Eventually he started auditing classes, then took classes as a special admit student until he reached the maximum 18 credits. He petitioned twice, first at age 13, then 14, to be admitted into Yale's Eli Whitney program, designed for non-traditional students. While he could have gone away to college, he wasn't ready yet, said his mom.
"We tried to slow this down as much as we could. Intellectually, he could have handled full-time college but we thought it was really important for him to be with his age mates," she said.
Jim Coyne, headmaster at Fairfield Warde, said Sawin was very advanced when he arrived at the school.
"I have been principal since 1987," said Coyne. "I have never seen a student able to achieve what Willy has achieved."
The last few years, Sawin said he has blended in more, both at Warde and Yale. He is unsure how many students at Yale even know he is younger than they are. Doherty said students in her class were protective of Sawin, shutting the door when students would peer in.
Tobias Dyckerhoff, a post doctoral fellow at Yale, had Sawin as a student in an Algebraic Geometry last fall. What is typically perceived as a difficult, technically challenging course, was one of his favorites.
"The ease at which Will developed an intuition and understanding for the subject is quite astonishing," said Dyckerhoff. "His questions, comments and suggestions were at a level which would have been remarkable even for an exceptional graduate student. In his homework, he typically provided highly creative and often ingenious arguments to solve the assigned problems."
Dyckerhoff said Sawin has the potential to become a leading mathematician. His mom sees him going into finance, something with economics or pure math.
On his last day at Yale before graduation, Sawin took the shuttle to campus, stopped in a library before class to log onto a computer, and then made his way to a second-floor classroom at Leet Oliver Memorial Hall. He sat with 10 other students as Assistant Professor Marketa Havlickova covered a room-length blackboard with math equations. At one point, Sawin raised a question that made the professor realize a mistake in one of her examples.
"Good point," she said, erasing the board and trying again.
Like many kids his age, he's not yet sure what he will end up doing. He does not see himself curing cancer. He considers himself a big-picture kind of guy.
What's important to his mother is that he's happy.
"There are so many miserable geniuses in the world, we were determined Will not be one of them," she said. "He is a happy soul."