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14 and 16-year-old siblings start their freshman year at UA

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Cyrus Norcross | The Daily Wildcat Siblings Justin and Rhyanna Fleming are just 14 and 16 years old, respectively, and already attending the University of Arizona as sophomores.

Siblings Justin and Rhyanna Fleming didn’t make it to the fifth grade before they decided to quit school, deeming it a waste of time. However, now aged 14 and 16 years old, respectively, the two decided to attend school again — starting here as sophomores at the University of Arizona.

Homeschool siblings

In the first grade, Justin asked to be homeschooled. The siblings’ mother Kristen Fleming thought he had separation anxiety. However, she then found that wasn’t the case.

“Justin gave me a report and showed me, saying, ‘Mom, look. I’m not really studying anything, I’m not learning anything,’” Kristen Fleming said. “He said, ‘we wait in line three to four hours a day. I’ve only learned two hours a day. If you keep me at home, I can learn read all the books I want and be learning more than that.’” 

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“We would spend like an hour just in the restrooms alone, so that really bothered me,” Justin said, remembering his primary school experience. 

Upon hearing this, Kristen Fleming decided to take him and his sister, who was in the third grade at the time, out and homeschool them. 

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As a single mother working full-time for the U.S. Forest Service, Kristen Fleming mostly allowed the two to be in charge of their education and teach themselves. Their homeschool process might have seemed quite simple. She would often take them to the library and bookstores, let them pick their own books and only take a look at the content. The only thing she expected was that they did the work required of them and became at least good writers, readers and typists.

“We just went to the library, picked up books on, say, biology, chemistry, economics,” Justin said. “After reading those books, we’d take practice exams on the exact same library websites.”

Though she said they supported each other a lot in their studies, Kristen Fleming described the siblings as highly competitive with one another. 

The siblings, however, deny this. 

“We’ve been homeschooled together for a long time. We’re pretty much each other’s only classmate,” Rhyanna said.  “We noticed when we were pretty young that we argue a lot less than other siblings.”

According to Rhyanna, they’re just trying their best.

“If you consider that as a rivalry ... we are just two individuals completely separate from each other trying to do our best,” Rhyanna said.

Acquiring college credentials 

The siblings went to the University of Phoenix to take the CLEP examinations and get credits to form a high school transcript.

Two years ago, when Rhyanna was 14 and Justin was 12, Kristen Fleming called the UA to ask if they could apply. She said both of them felt ready and she saw how they pretty much had finished everything. Justin had finished calculus, and his SAT scores were quite high. Their mother said that Rhyanna had always wanted to go back as well. 

The UA told her no. 

“I felt like they didn’t understand,” Kristen Fleming said. “I told them, ‘yeah, but they finished most of their science, math, reading, everything.’ I said that I just needed someone to look at it and see if it was worth it. And no one returned my call and when they did, … I was pretty much discouraged about [them] applying.”

They had the option of applying out of state, but as a UA alumna living in Tucson after moving from Albuquerque, New Mexico five years ago, Kristen Fleming didn’t want the two to apply to any colleges too far away. 

However, as Davidson Young Scholars (a program that provides services for “profoundly intelligent young people” aged 5 to 18, according to their website), the siblings were able to go through a summer program called Davidson THINK Summer Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno.

This experience solidified the brother and sister’s desire to go to college, according to Kristen Fleming. Both Justin and Rhyanna also agreed that going to college would help them find jobs. 

“A couple years later, when Justin was 14 and I was 16, and we had a lot of credits for things from AP’s and clubs and stuff, so my mom was like, ‘I’m not going to bother calling them, and we’re just going to apply,’” Rhyanna said. 

Both siblings applied and were accepted to the UA with no problems. 

The siblings won money from UA’s New Start program, which is a program made for freshmen to give them a taste of college life. Of the three categories students compete in, the siblings won the Innovation category.

Age is but a number

Justin, now an honors student studying molecular cellular biology, said that he tries his best not to use his age as a “social crutch.” 

“I can say ‘I’m 14’ and can get everybody’s attention in a room,” he said. “I try not to use it and blurt out that I’m 14, but sometimes it just happens. Rumors spread.” 

His older sister, also an honors student, is double majoring in computer science and business and said that, because of his age, Justin is also able to escape some drama. “No one’s gonna cuss out a 14-year-old,” she added. 

However, besides those advantages, the two siblings said they are usually treated the same as everyone else. 

“I don’t really see a difference,” Justin said. He also mentioned that, on the outside, he may be able to pass as 17 or 18.

Rhyanna explained that it is only when they are together that people might become suspicious. “Most people don’t question our age unless we are together,” she said. 

Motivated mother

The siblings said that their mother can be very protective of them. Living out in the dorms, they said their mother gets worried if they don’t keep contact with her constantly.

Kristen Fleming, however, said that she is not at all worried. “I don’t know if you know this, but if you are a self-learner, you do everything on your own … That is why I know they will figure that out. They solve their own problems.” 

The only thing she worried about is that they won’t get treated as equals and will be given special attention. “I believe they are capable of solving the same problems as any other college kid,” she said. 

However, she hasn’t seen much of the problem yet and sees them being “happier than they have ever been” going to college. The siblings agree that their college experience has been great so far, with a bit more freedom than what they had at the Davidson’s THINK program. 

From all the advice that their mother has given them, they said that “being humble” was the piece that stuck with them most effectively. “‘There is always going to be someone smarter,’ I tell them,” Kristen Fleming said. 

Rhyanna explained the reason their mother is giving the two of them the chance to go to the UA.

“Her motivation for giving us this opportunity is because she didn’t have opportunities for a great education when she was a kid,” Rhyanna said. “She was [living] in Cambodia, and lots of bad stuff was happening there.” 

The two are happy to have the chance to go to college, and they say they are both enjoying a lot of their classes in molecular and cellular biology courses and computer programming. 

What comes next? 

When they graduate, Justin predicts he will be 16 and his sister 18. Justin is considering graduate school if he doesn’t find a job beforehand, and Rhyanna is hoping to study entrepreneurship at Eller and end with a triple major. 

Rhyanna’s dream at the moment is to go into game development, but that might change. 

“At first, I want to work at some other game-development companies, or programming companies in general, to get an idea of what it’s like to be in that process,” she said.

After that, she would like to start her own company, making her own games. Later in life, she would like to work for artificial intelligence, because she said she thinks it would be cool.

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Justin isn’t sure what he wants to do after he graduates.

“I have no idea. I would like to say that I’ll be in a research clinic or whatever, doing very vague things. But that’s the problem: It is very vague. In five years, I can end up as a librarian. You know, life just happens. You never know where you’re going to be,” Justin said.


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Updated September 22, 2021