The thin, dark-haired boy walking on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge could easily be mistaken for someone's kid brother. Few freshmen would suspect that he was a classmate headed for the physics lab.
At 15, Jolly Chen of Arcadia is one of the 10 youngest students to enter M.I.T. this semester. And he doesn't even have his high school diploma. Jolly's counselor at Arcadia High School had to petition the school board to get permission to apply the credits Jolly is earning at M.I.T. toward his high school diploma, which the teen-ager expects to receive at the end of this semester.
Jolly, who hopes to get a bachelor's degree in computer engineering, said he selected M.I.T. because of its reputation for excellence in science and engineering.
"For computer science, it's definitely the place to be," he said.
There was probably less red tape involved in getting into M.I.T. than getting permission to leave his high school. According to Marilee Jones, M.I.T.'s associate director of admissions, the institute does not require students to have high school diplomas, and Jolly had completed M.I.T's basic math and English requirements. His 4.0 high school grade-point average plus a score of 770 out of a possible 800 on the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test didn't hurt, either.
A math and science whiz, Jolly has been amazing teachers, counselors and schoolmates ever since he moved with his family to the United States from Hong Kong in 1977.
Jolly, who was born in Peking, did not speak a word of English when he came to this country at the age of 7, but he soon excelled in his studies, teachers said. He did so well that over the years, he skipped the 2nd, 8th and 12th grades.
His junior high school counselor said that his teachers were so delighted with his promise as a sixth-grader at Bonita Park Elementary School in Arcadia that they persuaded the PTA to buy him a bicycle so he could ride to the local junior high school for advanced math classes.
At that time, a counselor remembers that Jolly could barely reach the pedals. But the determined 10-year-old rode during his lunch hour to 1st Avenue Junior High School, where he took algebra, a course normally taught to ninth-graders.
"He was never late," said the teacher, who added that workers at the junior high school would call his elementary school to let them know Jolly had arrived safely.
At 11, Jolly took part in the University of Arizona's Project for the Academically Precocious, a program for seventh- and eighth-graders who scored in the top 2% of their class. The program was designed to put the gifted students in touch with other talent search programs around the country and encourage them to take the Schlastic Aptitude Test early. Jolly said that at that time, he scored 1,100, about average for high school seniors taking the test.
As a freshman at M.I.T., Jolly is taking the maximum course load allowed, with classes in computer programming, physics, chemistry, calculus and macroeconomics. He also is working six hours a week as a researcher for two materials sciences professors under the university's undergraduate research opportunity program.
"It's a lot tougher than high school," Jolly said. "You get humble real fast here." But his good study habits seem to be serving him well.
"He's more studious than we are," said Tom Barrada, 18, of Pomona, one of Jolly's two roommates at Burtin House, an M.I.T. dormitory. Jolly says he spends most of his time going to class and studying, but finds time to be active in his church, work on the M.I.T. yearbook and play chess, one of his favorite pastimes. His father, Simpson Chen, says Jolly is one of the top players in the nation in his age group.
Jolly says he does not have a girlfriend and is not dating, because "there's not that much time." He added that the 3-1 male-female ratio at M.I.T. also works against him.
He says he hasn't time to be troubled by homesickness. His mother calls him once a week to keep him up with what's going on with the family. He won't get home for Thanksgiving but plans to spend the Christmas holidays with his family.
Jolly seems almost embarrassed by the attention his accomplishments have drawn. "I'm a normal person. I'm not very special," he said.
But his junior high counselor, Lynn Campbell, disagrees. "Ordinary geniuses like us look dull next to Jolly," she said facetiously.
As a small boy, Jolly was fascinated by everything from unidentified flying objects to the stock market, his father said. "Every night he would watch for UFO's."
His love of the stock market prompted him at an early age to regularly read the Wall Street Journal and watch "Wall Street Week" on public television.
"He always tells my mom how to to buy houses with no money down," his 18-year-old sister Cora said. "When he was 8 or 9, he always kept track of gold prices."
His father was so impressed with Jolly's business sense that he gave him $1,500 to buy some stocks.