Only 16, U of T grad Vivian Xie is a big fan of learning — as long as it's fun

June 22, 2021 by Rahul Kalvapalle - U of T News

Vivian (Qiao) Xie isn’t old enough to vote or order an alcoholic beverage — in fact, she’s barely old enough to drive. Yet, she’s about to graduate from the University of Toronto and begin a master’s degree in applied immunology.

The 16-year-old Innis College student is the youngest to graduate from U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science, U of T Scarborough or U of T Mississauga since at least 1979, the year the university began tracking such data in its Repository of Student Information system.

Moreover, Xie hopes to finish her PhD by the time she’s 22 — an age when many students are preparing to complete their undergraduate degrees. If all goes to plan, it would be Xie’s latest fast-tracked academic achievement. She skipped several grades in elementary and middle school, completed Grade 10 over a summer and, at age 12, began her first year of undergraduate studies at the University of Prince Edward Island before transferring to U of T.

Xie says her family never pressured her to excel in her studies and credits her grandmother — a retired teacher — for stimulating her love of learning when she was a young child in Shanghai, where she spent her early life before the family moved to P.E.I.

“She would teach me as I was playing – that’s where I got my curiosity and enjoyment of learning from,” Xie says. “Younger me was very much into school because, for me, it was really about learning and I didn’t care about grades.

“My grandmother Pavlov-ed me into associating learning with fun.”

The flipside, according to Xie, is that she struggles with material she finds uninteresting or presented in an unengaging way — which is why she’s also keen to learn more about education itself, explored teaching English overseas (she was told she was too young) and has volunteered to help students in Toronto learn concepts through less traditional formats like video games.

Xie, who heads to U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine this fall, says her close relationship with her grandmother persists to this day. The two shared an apartment, along with Xie’s mother, while Xie worked towards completing a double major in cell and molecular biology and biology from the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Aside from her age, Xie comes across as a fairly typical university student. She has a circle of close friends and “more hobbies than I have time for,” including art, creative writing, piano and the Minecraft video game. She has a prolific collection of plush toys and loves pets — especially cats.

Her age, she says, hasn’t detrimentally affected her social life in university.

“The only thing that I maybe missed out on is the nightlife, but I’m not much of a party person anyway so I don’t think I’m missing out on too much,” she says. “The rest of my social life — the more daytime variety — has been very normal.”

Charlie Keil, principal of Innis College, says he was amazed when he learned of a then-13-year-old student in the college’s midst. Just a few years earlier, 14-year-old Maddy (Xiaoxiao) Zhang began her studies at U of T and graduated last year at the age of 18.

“We thought there surely couldn’t be anyone any younger — and then Vivian came along,” Keil says.

Keil says he first met Xie at an event early last year.

“She engaged me in this really complex debate — about the legal status of something or the other — and I thought, ‘Wow, this student really has got it together. She knows how to hold her own, she’s got her own mind and she’s really thought these things through,’” says Keil, who walked away from the conversation convinced Xie was a humanities student.

He later learned that Xie was actually studying sciences, and was the extraordinarily young student he’d heard about. “I said, ‘Wow. Well, that only makes you even more impressive.’”

While there are often good reasons to be leery of advancing students ahead of their age group, Keil says Xie — much like Zhang before her — is exceptionally mature and well-rounded for her age. “Vivian is rare in that she doesn’t seem to be daunted by any of the potential interpersonal obstacles that might be presented by her age… I think to have kept her back would’ve been to hold her back, which wouldn’t have made much sense.”

Xie, however, says she often struggled to prevent being “held back” through much of her early school years.

In P.E.I., she says she was allowed to skip Grade 3 without much fuss, calling it “the calm before the storm.” Then, part way through Grade 5, Xie decided she wanted to jump to Grade 6, but no school in the province would allow it. So, Xie pushed back: “I said ‘I’m not going to go to school if you’re not going to let me skip this grade.’ I was a stubborn child.”

After calling “literally every school in Canada,” Xie’s parents finally found a school in Halifax willing to entertain the possibility of allowing her enrol in Grade 6. The school administered a test — and then placed Xie in Grade 8.

“Either my communication wasn’t clear because I was a child, or maybe it was my mother’s broken English, or maybe they just thought it was a good idea,” Xie says.

Despite the age gap, Xie says she made lots of friends on the first day and fit in easily.

She went on to finish eighth and ninth grades before moving back to P.E.I for Grade 11 — but only after her teachers and tutors to agreed to allow her to complete Grade 10 over a summer. She then completed Grades 11 and 12 in full.

Throughout it all, Xie says it was her solely her decision to skip grades and not rooted in any parental pressure. “If anything, my mother would have probably lost less hair and had fewer headaches if it wasn’t for my shenanigans,” she says.

Though it may come as surprise to some, Xie says she’s not grade-obsessed and doesn’t believe they are a very good measure of a student’s capabilities or potential.

“From such a young age, students are trained to think of grades as the thing that measures your self-worth, and so many people judge you by it,” she says. “Part of the reason I skipped grades in the first place was because I noticed that learning would become progressively less fun if I fell into this rat race.”

For that reason, Xie says she enjoyed university more than high school because of the ability to choose your courses, study on your own terms and progress at your own pace. “Also, just the general freedom of not having a teacher hassle you in home room everyday: ‘Have you written your essay yet? Have you read this chapter yet? Have you watched this YouTube video yet?’ It’s like, okay, just list it on the syllabus and I’ll do it in my own time.”

Xie says that when learning is fun nothing’s overly difficult. “It doesn’t phase me if you throw me 10 essays for one course as long as I enjoy it,” she says. “But if you give me one essay for one really boring course, I’d do very poorly on that.”

Xie’s interest in learning extends well beyond school. Currently in Shanghai visiting family, she picked up a Mandarin textbook to try to improve her command of the language. She’s also looking into setting up a business importing pet goods from China — not because she’s keen to make money, but because she’s intrigued by the world of entrepreneurship.

“I’m curious about how the business world works, how the writing world works, online marketing, social media, the entertainment world — basically I’m curious about how everything works.”

She also tried to use her time in Shanghai to gain teaching experience as an English tutor for kindergarten-age children. She says she aced the job application and was about to be offered the job — until the school saw her ID and told her she wasn’t legally old enough.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, education is also high atop her list of interests.

“The biggest reason for that is my own experience — all the grade-skipping that I did and all the experiences I had with the school system, grades and not encouraging kids to be curious and learn,” she says. “Because they are our next generation. What are we doing if we’re not fostering their interest in the subjects?”

Xie is doing her part to make learning more fun. She volunteered to teach children at last year’s Minecraft camp organized by the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, which uses the popular video game to teach children about architecture. “It was a great idea. I’m all about using these sorts of fun tools to engage kids,” says Xie. “That was my first time experimenting with education, and it went really well.”

Paolo de Guzman, one of the camp’s student organizers, says Xie is part of a tight-knit group of friends who initially met on U of T’s Minecraft server before taking their friendship into the physical world.

“She’s just another part of the group,” says de Guzman, who is graduating with a neuroscience specialist and minor in physiology.  “Her age will come up mostly as the butt of a joke — like if we’re talking about alcohol or anything of that nature — but outside of that, it’s really no different.

“If she didn’t tell us her age, I don’t think any of us would have known.”

Keil, meanwhile, says that Xie’s age isn’t necessarily the most remarkable thing about her.

“She seems to approach everything with the idea that she can learn something from it. That’s a very helpful mindset to go into one’s education with,” Keil says. “She has a range of interests, too. Not only is she not fixating on her grades, but she’s not allowing this rather unusual fact about her to define her in any way. She would still be remarkable and interesting regardless of her age, and she’s not limited or defined by it.

“I’m very interested to see where she goes from this point onward.”

For now, Xie is looking forward to beginning her master’s degree and, later, her PhD — and the prospect of learning in person again. As for the long term, she says she can see herself in academia or the biotech industry.

And her grandmother who started it all?

“She’s very proud of me,” says Xie. “But she also has this ‘I expected it’ attitude.”