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All issues  >  Spring/Summer 2011  >  WSU's youngest grad

CLA's youngest star shines bright

Photo: Kayla Heard in cap and gown

Kayla Heard

By Phyllis Shier, College of Liberal Arts

Sixteen-year-old Kayla Heard (B.A. '11, social sciences) from Union, Washington, is no stranger to the spotlight since becoming the youngest person ever to graduate from Washington State University.

From the end of April to commencement in mid May, news stories, a video, and a radio interview documented her precocious academic success.

Kayla's mother, Marlyn Heard, recognized her daughter had unique abilities when she was just a baby and fast-tracked her education at home.

Kayla talked at age one and read at 18 months. At age two she realized the U.S. hadn't had any female presidents and told her mother she wanted to be the first one. Today, she describes that dream as a "flighty childhood aspiration." But that doesn't mean she's given up on dreaming big.

"I'd honestly rather be involved in the Supreme Court, seeing as it would allow me to be more involved with moral and Constitutional issues, and give me a larger venue through which I can work toward the betterment of society," she said.

A few "firsts" for Kayla

Being WSU's youngest graduate is not the only thing that makes Kayla's story unique.

Unlike most WSU students, she first visited campus after completing her degree, when she walked in Pullman's May 7 commencement ceremony following two and a half years of online course work. Because of her age—she was barely 14 when she transferred to WSU from community college—her parents had thought the online degree option best. Kayla appreciated the ability to manage her studies on her own schedule, but was glad to come to campus for graduation.

"Commencement was incredible," she said. "It was wonderful to visit the WSU campus, and taking part in the ceremony was so exciting."

The special occasion brought together her family, friends, and relatives from across the country.

"My sister and youngest nephew flew out from Florida to see me and drove to Pullman with my older brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew. It was actually the first time I'd gotten to see my baby nephew in person."

In a fitting turn of events, online technology extended the reach of Kayla's celebration in Pullman.

"Lots of my relatives from around the world also got to take part in commencement through the online broadcast, and I'm really thankful for that," she said.

Homeschooled around the world

What many of the recent news stories about Kayla didn't focus on was her life outside of the cyber classroom.

"I've been traveling since I was just a toddler, and that's instilled a sense of adventure and a love of exploring in me," she said. "One of the things that drives me to work hard at building a good foundation for my life and for my career is that I want to be successful enough to explore the world and work abroad in a lot of foreign countries."

Kayla has been fortunate to take part in many family vacations. She also spent time abroad with her father, Royce L. Heard, a mechanical engineer.

"My dad actually inspired my desire to work abroad," Kayla said. "He traveled a lot in order to supervise building projects. I loved coming with him and getting to experience so many different places."

Today, Kayla's passport has as many stamps as a foreign diplomat's, documenting visits to Hong Kong, Venezuela, Mexico, and multiple trips to the Philippines.

Kayla Heard with Mount Mayon in the background age 9
Kayla Heard before Mount Mayon in the Philippines, age 9

In the U.S. she's traveled extensively in Washington and Oregon, down the California coastline, and to Washington, D.C., and Niagara Falls. She has also lived in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Venezuela, and Mexico.

Picture perfect experiences

Kayla includes Hurricane Ridge and the Staircase in Olympic National Park and Crater Lake in Oregon among her favorite places in the United States.

"Crater Lake is one of my favorites mainly because of the fact that it's a mile-wide dormant volcano full of water," she said. "It's beautiful to photograph, and the experience of just standing at the edge and being dwarfed by it all was breathtaking."

Kayla Heard at Crater Lake, age 12
Kayla Heard at Crater Lake, age 12

The Staircase, one of her favorite places she's hiked, allowed her to go off the trail, climb massive boulders, and swim in river pools.

Hurricane Ridge was a great place for photography, hiking, and recreation. "Three-hundred-and-sixty-degree views of snow-capped peaks made snowboarding there amazing."

Puerto Galera, on the Philippine island of Mindoro, Repulse Bay in the Southern District of Hong Kong, and Central Hong Kong are among Kayla's favorite overseas locales.

"Each of those places holds great memories because I've gotten to do some pretty amazing things there," she said.

Puerto Galera is her favorite tropical vacation spot. "It's a relaxing little beach resort near a small island town where I like to go and browse the markets for clothes and black pearl or shell jewelry."

Getting there, she said, is part of the adventure. "I'll never forget the time we took an open wooden ferry, rode through a storm, and had our boat literally flying over the waves!"

Kayla enjoyed bartering in markets and photographing the ocean and mountain vistas at Repulse Bay. The atmosphere and architecture in Central Hong Kong impressed her because shops and other establishments stay open late. Her family would often stay out after dark, she said, sightseeing or shopping with the illuminated city providing a memorable backdrop.

On her first 15 minutes of fame

Even with all of her adventures, college graduation was Kayla's first brush with the media. Her review of all of the attention is mixed. While much of it was enjoyable, there were some inaccuracies.

"I'm not as naive or sheltered as the media portray me," she said of coverage she received that suggested she may be more "wide-eyed" than the average person when it comes time to transition to the workforce, because of her young age and being homeschooled.

In a radio interview with KIRO's Dori Monson, who asked "What's it going to be like when you're out in what others of us call 'the real world'?" Kayla pointed out that her travels have provided her with a broad worldview, a point she reiterated in her interview for NEXUS.

"I've experienced and seen a lot of things that most teenagers haven't and gone through my fair share of trials that most teenagers have experienced," she said. "I've endured hardships in my past, and I know a lot about the 'real world,' not only from my years of in-depth study of society, but my real-life experiences with travel and my own social life as well."

Like other teens her age, Kayla has many hobbies, including playing guitar and piano and singing at her church, in which she is very involved.

"My studying at home has never impeded my social life," she said. "I have lots of friends my own age and often invite them over for sleepovers, parties, or hiking. The only difference is that I don't see my friends every single day, but that's probably a good thing because it makes for less drama."

Photo: Kayla Heard at the botanical gardens in Hong Kong

Kayla Heard at the botanical gardens in Hong Kong, age 16

Future plans

Kayla is taking the summer to search for an ABA-accredited law school to attend in-state to pursue her goal of a career in international or criminal law.

When she completes law school, she plans to start her overseas career, probably in Hong Kong. Even though she does not speak Cantonese, she doesn't see that as an obstacle to her success.

"It's a pretty international city, so speaking English won't be a problem," she said. "My mother used to live in Hong Kong, and she personally recommended that I get to experience living and working there during my young adulthood."

Kayla is modest about her successes, thanking God for her intellectual gifts and crediting her mother as her teacher. "She's a very intelligent and hardworking woman. I'm very inspired by her, and I can't think of a more qualified person to have taught me."

After she has worked for a few years, Kayla plans to obtain a master's degree on the road to fulfilling her Supreme Court ambitions. Then, who knows? Only time will tell what she'll want to do by the time she reaches, say, 30. For now that's practically a lifetime away.



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