GODFREY — A lot of college experiences begin at age 18, after high school graduation. Some college students are even adults in their 60s going back to school.
But Anya Alexis Wilkie of Brighton took a more nontraditional route.
Anya graduates today from Lewis and Clark Community College — at age 13.
"It's been quite an adventure," said her mother, Brandy Wilkie. "As a mother, I always thought I would end up with those picture frames of her in front of the school bus showing her in first grade, second grade, third grade, but that was clearly not going to happen and we realized that really early in her life."
"It all started when she was an infant," Wilkie said. "We had heard that babies could learn to read and I was a language specialist in college and when I heard the research behind the idea that babies could learn to read, I recognized very quickly that it was really just language acquisition, just in a context I never would have thought of doing before."
Soon after, they started teaching her to read. Sure enough, Anya began reading by the time she was 8 or 9 months old.
"So, she was reading at the same time she was speaking," Wilkie said. "Our brains are designed to learn language as infants, so whether you are speaking to your baby or signing to your baby, they will pick it up because God designed our brains to do so.
"They can learn to read if you present the written material to them in the same type of manner that we use to speak to babies. We started that process when she was 8 weeks old and she learned to read, speak and sign all at the same time."
Anya began formal private schooling at the age of 2, in a classroom mixed with preschool and kindergarten students.
"That worked great because there was a preschool element to it," Wilkie said. "And she was still the youngest in the school, but she was with kids that were closer in age to her than if she was only in a kindergarten classroom. And since it was a Montessori school, she was able to work at her own pace."
By the time she left the private school at the age of 3, Anya was able to do four-digit math and read more advanced novels.
"She stayed in that classroom for two years and, since my husband is in the military, we had to move from Texas to Oklahoma and it can be difficult with schooling because it's different in each state," Wilkie said.
The transition proved to be challenging for the family.
"They didn't feel comfortable placing a 4-year-old in first grade," Wilkie said. "So they did testing and, while she tested out of first grade, they still didn't feel comfortable placing a student so young in that class, so they put her in kindergarten, which made it Round 3 of kindergarten, but (they) quickly realized it wasn't a good fit so they started doing half days in kindergarten and half days in second grade."
After another few years, the family had to move again, this time to Illinois, which is where their homeschooling journey really began.
"It was never something I really considered, but it was a challenge with the public schools here, as well, and we quickly saw that homeschooling was really the only choice," Wilkie said. "When we called Illinois, they told us no; that 5-year-old's go into kindergarten. And, at this point, Anya had gone through kindergarten multiple times."
After calling the Illinois State Board of Education, Wilkie was faced with the dilemma of putting Anya in public school, private school or homeschooling.
"I was a school teacher prior to staying home with Anya and I never saw homeschooling as the best option, which I think is the general belief," Wilkie said. "But I've come to believe that homeschooling is actually the best option and we are so glad we made that choice."
Wilkie then became responsible for her daughter's education, which wasn't an easy undertaking.
"Suddenly, you, as a parent, become completely in charge of curriculum, standards, expectations, subjects, everything," she said. "We, as a society, have this idea that only qualified professionals can teach our kids, which is something that I used to think before. And the truth is, by being a parent, that qualifies you to do anything you want in regards to your kids and to be able to educate your children. And if there's something you don't know how to teach, there's always a resource."
Wilkie attributes her daughter's success in academics to the blessings and opportunities she has been given throughout her life.
"She's been blessed with opportunities that other kids her age haven't had, and that makes a big difference," she said.
The first year they tackled homeschooling, Anya went from kindergarten to third grade in one year.
"We covered Latin, Spanish and Greek," Anya said. "We also did physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy, which was all when I was 6 years old."
"It's all in how you teach it," Wilkie said. "You present the materials in a way they can understand it. It can all be just as natural as teaching them how to speak."
"The great thing about homeschooling is you almost don't realize that you're learning because it's just fun," Anya said. "It's just a part of your life and then when you look back over the year, you realize how much progress you've made."
Anya said the biggest difference between public school and homeschooling is the connection between the lessons.
"In public school, you have each subject lined up in a certain time frame, but homeschooling, there's really an interconnectedness between everything you learn."
Anya began taking courses at LCCC at age 12 and will graduate with an associate's degree in fine arts and an associate's degree in music performance.
While she was accepted to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, she plans to return to homeschooling during what would be her high school years after suffering two concussions within a 6-month span.
"Having those concussions made it really challenging to study and continue with school because I had a headache with the first concussion that never goes away," Anya said.
"I really liked going to college," she said. "I've had a lot of fun and I don't think I would have been able to get there without the homeschooling my mom did. "All of the teachers (at LCCC) are so driven and committed to their students, and the music program is so amazing."
Although her experience was a good one, Anya said, she doesn't think it's for everyone.
"It took a lot of preparation academically as well as emotionally and socially," Wilkie said. "It's different for everyone and there's a lot of factors, even more so than just the academic aspect of it, as well. At the college level, there are some classes more than others that are aimed for a mature group and we definitely had to prepare for that in a way that it still preserved her innocence as a 12-year-old."
Anya also is a violinist and hopes to continue her craft and possibly become a solo performer.
"I would love to do that, but I'm not sure what I want to do yet," Anya said.
She also is considering going into the science field and branching out into either paleontology or archaeology.
"I have a lot of time still to figure out what I want to do," she said.
"It's a delicate balance and she's very gifted, but she's also been very blessed with the educational opportunities she has had to get from point A to point B and it's important to find that balance," Wilkie said.
"I think that if it wasn't for my parents and without the blessings that God has given me, I would just be a normal eighth-grader," Anya said.