Image: Colin Carlson
Jessica Hill  /  AP
Colin Carlson, 13, speaks to senior Alex DeFrancesco before their Evolution of Green Plants class at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., on Tuesday. Carlson says UConn is discriminating by barring him from traveling to South Africa for course work.
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updated 3/28/2010 1:21:53 PM ET 2010-03-28T17:21:53

Even at 13, Colin Carlson believes he's running out of time.

Colin is a sophomore at the University of Connecticut, seeking a bachelor's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology and another in environmental studies. But he's been knocked off course by the university's rejection of his request to take a class that includes summer field work in South Africa.

He and his mother say university officials told them he is too young for the overseas course. So he's filed an age discrimination claim with the university and U.S. Department of Education, which is investigating.

"I'm losing time in my four-year plan for college," he said. "They're upsetting the framework of one of my majors."

Michael Kirk, a spokesman for UConn, would not comment on Colin's case. But he said that generally, safety is the university's first concern when travel is involved.

The university would not let Colin enroll, even after his mother, Jessica Offir, offered to release UConn from liability and accompany her son as a chaperone at her own expense, she and Colin said.

Colin was 2 or 3 when he began reading on his own, Offir said, and was up to "Harry Potter" by the time he was 4. An only child, he has faced trouble before because of his brainpower. His kindergarten teacher would not allow him to take books with him at nap time, and he was ridiculed by other children who fired math questions at him to entertain themselves, she said.

"You have no idea what kids like this experience," Offir said.

Colin skipped two grades in public school and began taking psychology, history and other courses at UConn when he was 9. He graduated from Stanford University Online High School at age 11, and soon after enrolled full-time at UConn.

"I'm actually like any other student, he said. "The faculty and students have better things to do than worry about a 13-year-old holding his own."

Ecuador, Nova Scotia already visited
Over the years, Colin, who said he is fascinated by natural ecosystems, has traveled extensively. He has gone sea kayaking off Nova Scotia and Ecuador, hiked in numerous national parks and, with his mother, has traveled across the U.S. by car.

"It's important to have a very wide world view," he said. "Biology is fundamentally about the diversity of life, with a focus across the planet."

Colin says the course in conservation work in South Africa would have been critical to his studies and the rejection has forced him to change his thesis plans.

He said that once he's completed his undergraduate studies, he wants a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology and a degree in environmental law for a career in conservation science. He intends to earn the two degrees by age 22.

Carl Schlichting, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who has taught Colin in two courses, said he is not only an outstanding student, but is unusually certain for a 13-year-old about where he is headed professionally.

"He has very strong ideas about what he wants to do," he said. "His self-confidence is very high. It's a very unusual package to see the intellect and confidence at that age."

To be eligible to study abroad, students may not be on university probation or academic probation and must have earned a grade point average of at least a "C" — no problem for Colin, who's an honor student with a near-perfect 3.9 GPA.

The study abroad office and faculty member leading the trip ultimately decide who may go, Kirk said.

Case a first of its kind?
Brian Whalen, president and chief executive officer of the Forum on Education Abroad, a nonprofit member association of 400 schools, agencies and other groups, said he has not heard of another case where a college student Colin's age had tried to study abroad. When accepted into a college or university, a student generally is assumed to have access to academic programs, he said.

Although Colin was barred from the South African field trip course, he will participate in a National Science Foundation-funded research group that also will take him to South Africa to study plant ecology.

Colin and his mother say they would be satisfied if the university ensures that the NSF-funded research trip and a seminar fulfill the academic requirements of the course he originally sought. They also have asked that $5,000 in stipend and expenses be reimbursed.

Their lawyer, Michael Agranoff, said he wants to negotiate a solution. He and a lawyer for the state have scheduled their first meeting Friday, he said.

Colin says he would prefer not to have to fight, but he has no choice.

"When people are drawing lines in the sand, you're going to have to cross them," he said. "I'm not going back."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Colin's case

  1. Closed captioning of: Colin's case

    mom: there's new scope outlast. but when -- colin carlson joins us this morning. thanks for being with us. you're a sophomore at the university of connecticut now. wow. but this is the first time you tried enroll in a class that required field work in another country or to study abroad . why dew point to take this class ?

    >> african field ecology was an important class for me. so, it would have been very important for both my majors.

    >> you're an environmental studies major. when you got to the school were you told this class was part of the curriculum. i was told first of all i would be allowed to study abroad and this class had been on the table as something i could take.

    >> now why did the school tell you you can take this class ?

    >> i was not admitted to this class on the basis of age. there were 27 original applicants to the class . 26 of them got in. i was the only person rejected. the professor went to fine four more people to be in the class .

    >> we should mention, part of this class there's a trip to south africa .

    >> right.

    >> do you think that was part of it? do you think you were too young to take the class or going south africa ?

    >> going the south africa . it's absurd in that my mother offered to go with. we offered to sign liability waivers. there is no reason i shouldn't be allowed.

    >> we reach out to the class . they declined to comment. they did say this, generally speaking a variety of factors need to be considered when it comes to study abroad programs, particularly the safety and well being of students the. some parents say maybe this isn't the best idea. he's only 13. south africa is far away . if you go with him it could be disruptive. how do you respond?

    >> in terms of safety the school offered colin $3,000 last december if he would go to kenya on his own. so if it were about safety we wonder why we wanted him to go kenya which is a country that has much more turmoil than south africa . south africa is a first world country. beyond that we know many students in college, colin 's age and younger who have done study abroad programs like this with absolutely no problem. they do them very well.

    >> let me ask has age ever been an issue before with you on campus. you're a sophomore and you're 13. age has not been an issue?

    >> never.

    >> however this works out, can i ask what your future plans are? what you would like to do?

    >> well i would say in recent years there's been a gap between good policy making and good science. my goal in having a major in environmental studies and in ecolog yrn and biology is to bridge that gap and design policies in the future. as an environmental attorney or an adviser.

    >> that's so impressive because when i was 13 i wanted the latest atari games . thank you so much for being with us. we are right

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