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Video: Preteen goes to college

TODAY contributor
updated 6/4/2008 12:17:51 PM ET 2008-06-04T16:17:51

Moshe Kai Cavalin likes to tell about the time his father took him to take his college entrance test. The administrators told his dad he couldn’t bring an 8-year-old with him into the test room. His father told them the boy was going in alone — because he was the one taking the test.

“They were smiling ... thought he was telling a joke,” Moshe told TODAY’s Ann Curry Wednesday in New York. But when Moshe’s scores came back, the administrators were suddenly telling his dad something else — that Moshe needed to be taking advanced mathematics.

And so, on a day when other kids his age are in the final week or two of fifth grade, 10-year-old Moshe was visiting New York and off for the summer, having just completed his second year at East Los Angeles College, a community college.

Moshe aced all his courses, in such subjects as statistics, advanced mathematics, foreign languages and music. Now he says he’s hoping for a scholarship to a prestigious four-year college.

To say Moshe is a prodigy is like saying Michelangelo could paint a little. His parents, Shu Chen Chien and Yosef Cavalin, have known that ever since they tried to enroll him in a private elementary school and discovered that the boy knew more than his teachers. So they home-schooled him for two years before realizing he was already beyond elementary and high school level and ready for college.

Willpower and focus
But Moshe likes to say he’s no different than other kids. He plays the piano and soccer and has a roomful of trophies from martial arts. His mother says that when he’s not studying, he goofs off and jumps around like any other 10-year-old.

“But when we put him to study, he is just able to concentrate — focus,” his mother told NBC.

“Willpower and hard work,” is Moshe’s explanation for his success.

“Even though I have a very high IQ, I don’t consider myself genius-smart,” he told Curry. “There’s 6.5 billion people on this earth, and every one is smart in his or her own way.”

Moshe’s way is his ability to absorb everything he reads and make subjects such as advanced math simple.

“I don’t really goof off that much,” he explained. “Except eating and sleeping, mostly I study. Just very, very tiny breaks.”

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His parents encourage his studies and seem to have just one taboo activity for their prodigy son — no video games. “It’s a waste of time,” Moshe said.

His father is Jewish-Italian, his mother Chinese, and Moshe’s Chinese given name, Kai, means “obedient tiger.” The name recognizes that he was born in the Year of the Tiger and also seems fitting to his eager devotion to learning.

Eye on the stars
Beyond his knowledge, the 4-foot-7 college student — he sits in a booster seat when his mother drives him to school — also exhibits wisdom.

Unlike other kids, he doesn’t predict what he will be when he grows up, or speak in terms of wishes. Instead, he says, “The future’s not for me to see, but I intend to be an astrophysicist.”

Why astrophysics? Curry asked.

“It’s very interesting — studies about the sky, studies about black holes, wormholes, time travel,” Moshe replies.

When other kids meet him, he said, they’re astonished to learn he’s already in college. “They’re really surprised,” Moshe said. “They always say, ‘Wow! What? Are you really in college?’ They mostly don’t believe it.”

His fellow students in college mostly didn’t believe it either. When he first arrived with his mother, they thought she was the student and he was just tagging along. Before long, he was tutoring them in mathematics and other subjects.

Moshe isn’t the youngest college student ever. Fourteen years ago, Michael Kearney had already graduated from the University of South Alabama with a degree in anthropology at the age of 10.

Curry asked Moshe why he so enjoys learning when other kids his age find books boring.

“King Solomon said that knowledge is more important than silver or gold,” Moshe replied. “And I add that knowledge is like a big brother helping you until the end of your life.”

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