Great Lakes resident about to get her bachelor's degree at 14
Thessalonika Arzu-Embry and her mother, Wonder Embry, get up at 5 in the morning most weekdays to go to school together.
Unlike most 14-year-olds, however, Thessalonika isn't off early in the morning to the local high school. She's going to Chicago State University.
Thessalonika is putting the finishing touches on a college career that started three years ago at College of Lake County and will end next month with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Chicago State.
"My college experience is a traditional college experience for me -- it is just that I have completed it faster," Thessalonika said. "I am very excited about joining others in having the opportunity to contribute to society in a significant way."
After their early wake-up, Thessalonika and her mom pray and work on Bible studies, then work out at a local fitness center before starting their hour-and-a-half commute from their home at the Great Lakes Naval Station near North Chicago to Chicago State, located on the city's South Side. Wonder Embry is a classmate of sorts at Chicago State, where she's a graduate student in clinical psychology.
During the commute, Wonder and Thessalonika study theory together and chat about their homework assignments. Thessalonika said her mother keeps her motivated.
"My mother is a strong inspiration to my success. She is a veteran of the United States Navy, and when she finished her tour, she home-schooled my brother and I," Thessalonika said.
Thessalonika's mother said that for her part, she was just doing right by her daughter.
"The parents are the most influential force in their own children's lives, and they have the power to influence them to do good and to go forward," Wonder Embry said.
Thessalonika was home-schooled until she was 8. At age 11, after receiving the equivalent of a high school diploma through her home schooling, she passed an entrance exam to attend College of Lake County and enrolled to study psychology.
She said she chose college from such a young age because she loves studying and has an interest in psychology that goes far beyond just material knowledge. One of her ultimate goals is to help people through a clinic she hopes to establish with her mother and her brother, Jeremy.
Thessalonika began attending classes at Chicago State last year and is on track to graduate Aug. 30 after finishing two summer classes.
If that weren't impressive enough, the 14-year-old carries a 3.9 GPA and is a member of the school's Honors College, a program designed for talented and highly motivated students. And she serves as a student senator.
She spends much of her time studying, reading and working with other students. While classmates are sometimes surprised by her young age, they generally don't treat her any differently, especially since she often will help them study, Thessalonika said.
Wild college parties aren't an option for Thessalonika, which is fine with her. A person's college experience is what they want to make of it, she said, and for her that means studying hard and helping others.
Professor Kathryn Rogalski, associate dean of social sciences at College of Lake County, taught Thessalonika in an introductory course and served as a kind of adviser to her. She said that whenever she met with Thessalonika to discuss academics, her father, mother and brother would all come with her.
Thessalonika plans to continue her studies at a graduate program for clinical psychology at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, a private college in North Chicago, or Stanford University.
While college can be difficult for any student, and especially one who's barely into her teens, Thessalonika credits much of her success to the strong support her family provides.
Rogalski said she saw that firsthand when mentoring Thessalonika.
"It's important to have a support system, especially when your peers are in a different place than you are," Rogalski said. "My biggest take-away from working with her is the importance of family."