MONTGOMERY — At Troy University's Montgomery Campus this spring, some 180 students will reach the milestone of completing a college degree, but only one of them will have earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees before he is old enough to vote.
Heath Harding of Montgomery will walk across the Davis Theatre stage Monday night to accept his Master of Computer Science degree. At 17-years-old, he is most likely the youngest degree recipient in TROY's history.
And while his achievement may seem extraordinary, for the Harding family it's pretty routine. Six of the family's 10 children started college by the age of 12.
“My three older sisters did the same things, and now my two younger bothers," Harding said. “It's become a kind of normal. It was exciting. I'm sure I missed some things not going to high school, but I got to experience a lot of things that most people don't get to experience."
Harding actually started taking college classes at 10 while the family was living in California. After they moved to Montgomery, Harding enrolled at Huntingdon College, where he completed his bachelor's degree in English before moving on to TROY for his master's degree.
Being so young in college comes with more than a few funny looks and strange moments, but Harding said that in time, most people were able to look past his age.
“There are some humorous interactions, and some funny nicknames, but it has always been positive," Harding said. “After a while everyone gets used to you being in the classroom. People can look past your height."
Many adult learners attend TROY's Montgomery Campus, which meant the age gap between Harding and his fellow students was even greater, going from just a few years to decades. But smaller classes meant he got to know both students and teachers better.
“I have to say that TROY was very flexible and accepted my unique situation," Harding said.
Adjunct instructor Dr. Fred Strickland taught Harding at TROY and said the teen fit in well in class and was up to the challenge of graduate level work.
“We do a lot of project-based assignments and he was able to contribute and did very good work," Strickland said. “He was more than equal to the task and had the intellectual maturity to deal with software engineering."
The Harding children have all been homeschooled by parents Mona Lisa and Kip Harding. The family's success at getting their children through college at such a young age has garnered national attention, and the Hardings have been featured on the Today Show and CNN among other national media.
Through their website, the Hardings now advise other families on how to replicate their homeschooling strategy, which Mona Lisa said can work for almost anyone.
“We get emails from people all the time saying my child is very bright and very bored in school and misbehaving," she said. “We urge them to consider home schooling because it is the only environment where they can really accelerate."
For his part, Heath is quick to dismiss any thought that he must be a genius because of his academic success at a young age.
“People like to say that to me, but I really don't feel like I am just endowed with superior ability," he said. “I think I've been given a better environment. I've had things at home be stable. My older sisters could tutor me and help me out with calculus class. I've been blessed with a great environment and I think if anyone was given the same environment they would be able to achieve the same success."
With diploma in hand, Heath Harding will join his father in the ranks of TROY alumni. Kip Harding also earned a master's degree from TROY.
The TROY Montgomery Campus commencement ceremony will be at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 20.