And now we can add Ajay Kumar Raja to the list!
Ajay Kumar Raja, a homeschooled teen and math major, was UC Berkeley’s youngest student when he started there full-time at age 14.
Ajay’s parents moved to the San Francisco Bay area from Singapore in 2005, when he was 3 years old. Ajay’s father lived with the family then, before the couple divorced. Ajay’s mother, Suji Rajagopal, is a paralegal and office manager at a Corte Madera law firm. Ajay’s father works in engineering and now lives in another city.
As a child growing up in the Bay area, Ajay was gifted in math and reading, but he struggled with simple life skills. He did not learn how to “tie shoes or even climb the stairs easily till much later than most children,” his mom Suji wrote in an article.
Despite being able to whiz through difficult subjects, Ajay had a hard time in school.
His parents enrolled him in a San Jose kindergarten at the usual age of 5. He only lasted three weeks.
From the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Technically, I’m a kindergarten dropout,” Ajay said, smiling. “My mom coined that.”
Ajay remembers an “extraordinarily mean” kindergarten teacher holding up his artwork as a class lesson in what not to do. He recalls tedious assignments in syllable recognition, and endless coloring.
“What scared me was how Ajay changed,” Rajagopal said about her son. “He stopped asking questions. He would shrink behind the backpack.”
Alarmed, Ajay’s parents withdrew him and became his teachers — checking out books from the library, experimenting with dry ice, and solving math puzzles with him.
Ajay’s mom said her guide in deciding what to teach him was “how sparkly his eyes were.”
Suji Rajagopal wrote, “Homeschooling allowed me to fine-tune exactly how my child’s needs were being met. He could devour high school math with a tutor while still in elementary school and read and analyze great literature through the library or college-level lectures, while learning writing and vocabulary through Calvin and Hobbes and various other age-appropriate, laughter-inducing prompts and resources. My son could, as an eight-year-old, take honors-level Chemistry lessons from an aerospace engineer who was passionate about teaching young children. With homeschooling, there were very few age-related educational barriers in my son’s way.”
Ajay completed a Euclidean geometry course with an online tutor at age 9 before moving on to an advanced version of the class with the tutor, among other courses.
Ajay also joined the San Jose and Berkeley Math Circles, a network of math-loving kids and adults who gather to solve problems for fun.
“Ajay loved solving puzzles — crosswords, codes and ciphers,” his mom told Nanette Asimov, higher education reporter for The Chronicle. Rajagopal laughingly reminded her son, “You would create your own that you’d force us to solve.”
At age 13, Ajay took concurrent enrollment classes at UC Berkeley part-time while also taking community college classes at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California.
Upon being officially accepted into the honors math program at UC Berkeley, Ajay chose to enroll as a freshman even though he already had enough credits to be classified as a junior.
Ajay told them, “I would like to take that extra time to do research and make connections with math professors.”
Too young to live in a college dorm, Ajay commuted to UC Berkeley from his mom’s house about 20 miles away in Concord, California.
While studying at UC Berkeley, Ajay worked as a mathematics tutor, mathematics grader, and researcher.
Ajay graduated from UC Berkeley with the Class of 2021. He privately tutors math while working part-time as an online algebra tutor at Reading Town. He would like to find a full-time job as a Quantitative Researcher.
The CV for Ajay Kumar Raja declares him an “aspiring pure mathematician” and contains mathematical jargon like “excluded permutation matrices,” “harmonic series” and “subdividing regular n-gons.”
He explains his work as “the study of abstractions of abstractions of abstractions.”
One of the hardest things about growing up smart, Ajay told The San Francisco Chronicle, was “people saying I was a genius. They kept harping: ‘You’re brilliant!’ I don’t really think that’s true. I just started earlier, and I worked hard. I think most anybody could do that. They can just find their own interest.”
When UC Berkeley Professor Jenny Harrison was informed of Ajay’s young age, she just shrugged and said, “Prodigies are common in math.” Professor Harrison taught Ajay in honors linear algebra and remembered him because he sat front row and center, raised his hand often, and answered nine out of ten questions right.
Still, she didn’t seem particularly impressed and even frowns upon gifted children doing too much too soon. “I actually discourage it,” said Harrison. “It’s easy to get out of balance.” She added that “sometimes, a young child will become obsessed with mathematics and not develop in other ways. For example, socially. Oh, I’ve seen that.”
Yet that didn’t happen with Ajay. Ajay’s resume lists comedy improv theater and jazz piano among his many well-rounded accomplishments. He’s also taken zumba fitness classes and First Aid/CPR/AED training. He volunteered at the public library in Concord, and won the Presidential Service Award for over 100 volunteer hours recorded at the library. He distributed lanterns for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s “Light the Night” fundraiser. He studied Dante’s Inferno, loves reading James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges, and enjoys writing fiction. He can even speak French and Japanese with some proficiency.
Nevertheless, if Ajay Kumar Raja is extraordinary, Professor Harrison said, it isn’t because he’s academically talented. It’s because whenever she answered Ajay’s questions, he did the most impressive thing of all.
“He’d say, ‘Thank you, Professor.’”