16-year-old earns master's degree, plans to pursue doctorate
Like many girls her age, 16-year-old Thessalonika Arzu-Embry loves traveling and sports. Swimming and tennis are two of her favorite activities.
The North Chicago-area girl also enjoys the teen-centric activities at her church, the Living Word Christian Center in Forest Park.
Again, pretty typical.
It's Arzu-Embry's academic pursuits that set her apart from her peers.
On Saturday, Arzu-Embry earned a master's degree in strategic foresight and organizational leadership through an online program offered by Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
She's now moving onto doctoral studies, hoping to pursue a degree focusing on aviation psychology.
Arzu-Embry wants to use the knowledge she's amassing as a business consultant in the aviation industry.
"We want to keep people safe in the air," she said.
That's a serious goal for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old girl.
Arzu-Embry's educational path always has been unusual.
She was home-schooled from the age of 4 and graduated from high school at 11.
"I was interested in studying, and so my mom used college textbooks," recalled Arzu-Embry, who lives with her family in Great Lakes Naval Station housing.
For undergraduate work, she started at the College of Lake County and then moved on to Chicago State University before finishing at Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, New Jersey.
Arzu-Embry got her bachelor's degree in psychology from Thomas Edison in 2013, completing her coursework online because she was traveling extensively for church and leadership conferences with her family.
Then it was on to Regent University, where Arzu-Embry enrolled in a hybrid program that mixed online studies and traditional, on-campus coursework.
Once again, Arzu-Embry's busy travel schedule kept her from earning a degree in a traditional college setting. Instead, she had weekly video-based sessions with instructors and other students.
Looking back, Arzu-Embry said she didn't mind not spending live time with other Regent students. Graduate students often are older and have jobs and don't fraternize like undergraduates do, she explained.
Regardless, Arzu-Embry said she had her fill of socializing with other students when she was younger.
"I don't regret missing those things because I did all of those things in undergraduate school," she said.
Arzu-Embry's goal for the master's program was to learn how to help businesses do what they do. Specifically, she wants to help businesses prepare for trends, demographic shifts, changing government regulations and other forces that can affect their operations.
"I'm interested in business," Arzu-Embry said. "That's a very dynamic profession."
Arzu-Embry likely is the youngest person to receive a degree from any of Regent's seven graduate schools, university spokeswoman Mindy Hughes said.
Regent has about 6,300 students enrolled at its Virginia Beach campus or online, Hughes said.
Doris Gomez, dean of Regent's School of Business and Leadership, praised Arzu-Embry's efforts in a statement released by the school.
"Achieving a master's degree at her age is a remarkable accomplishment, and we wish her well as she moves on to other pursuits," Gomez said.
Arzu-Embry is particularly interested in the aviation industry because of her father, Carlos Arzu. A military veteran and a private pilot, he now works as a manager at O'Hare International Airport.
"I grew up around airplanes," Arzu-Embry said. "We took flights all the time."
As was the case with her master's degree, Arzu-Embry wants to enter a doctoral program that mixes on-campus and online studies. It could take up to three years to earn her degree, she said.
Arzu-Embry hopes a degree in aviation psychology will give her the knowledge to work for aviation companies and reduce what she called "human factor errors," the types of problems that can cause plane crashes.
Using psychology to recognize when a pilot is agitated, is dealing with stress or is having other issues that negatively affect job performance can help a company avoid potentially deadly mistakes in the air, she said.
"That's really a blend of psychology and business," Arzu-Embry said.
'A great heart'
But there's more to Arzu-Embry than an intense educational schedule and professional aspirations.
She also is active with a youth group at the Living Word Christian Center. The group's leader, the Rev. David S. Winston, called Arzu-Embry "a wonderful young lady with a great heart and energetic spirit."
"She is very caring about others, and is always thinking of how to serve others first," Winston said. "(She) is filled with integrity, character and class."
Pushing herself to help others, Arzu-Embry also has done inspirational public-speaking engagements. She's written three self-published books, too.
One, "Jump the Education Barrier," aims to help people finish college.
A second, "In the Future," is designed to help business owners deal with trends.
Arzu-Embry said she wrote the third, "The Genius Race," to help people be geniuses in various areas of life.
The books are available for purchase at thessalonikaarzu.com.
This summer, Arzu-Embry will attend conferences in Greece and Spain about technology, business and leadership.
Arzu-Embry said she doesn't feel like she's missing out on normal 16-year-old stuff.
"Not at all," she said. "What different people consider normal is different for them."