When explaining the teenage phenomenon that is Collegeville’s Ashraya Ananthanarayanan, it’s easiest to start with what she doesn’t do.
“I’m a terrible artist,” said the 17-year-old, dressed in a green floral dress, six-inch leopard-print heels, and full makeup – jeans and sneakers are something else she rarely does. “I can’t do things normal kids do. I can’t ride a bike, I can’t swim.”
That’s dwarfed by just a partial list of the things the senior at Commonwealth Charter Academy does: Published author of three books listed on Amazon.com by the time she was 15. A pilot in training who hopes to be licensed next month. A skilled equestrian and aspiring golf professional. A fashion designer with her own line. Developer of a game app called Smile Jump. Target shooter with dreams of a future Olympics. An accomplished Indian classical dancer. A state Spelling Bee champ who went to the national competition. Fluent in six Indian languages and French.
One thing that “Ashie” hasn’t done is get a bachelor’s degree from Harvard … yet. She said that’s slated to come soon, in the spring of 2019, when she’ll be just 18. She’s already taken so many college-level classes at the Ivy League school that when she returns to the Cambridge, Mass., campus as a full-time student in September, she’ll be considered a senior.
In an era of constant conversation about whether today’s kids are too stressed or overextended, Ashie and her backers seem too busy to engage in that debate. They struggle for any simple explanation for all the diverse things she’s accomplished at such a young age. Ashie herself said the one word that best describes how she’s done it all is efficient.
“But I also need to be pushed to be efficient,” she said from her home office, crammed with trophies from beauty pageants and other competitions, certificates of achievement, horse-riding ribbons, and a congratulatory letter from Barack Obama – she can’t remember what for. “Sometimes I try to be a procrastinator. … My parents pushed me and I’m really glad.”
In her pink bedroom next door, the bunk beds are so crammed with stuffed animals that she often sleeps on a mat in another room. Typically, that’s only four or five hours a night.
“Looking at her resumé, your head is just, ‘Oh my gosh’ — that’s who she is,” said Stephan Bihoreau, a French teacher at Commonwealth, a cyber school, who instructed Ashie until she essentially maxed out on his curriculum.
But once she starts something, whether it’s French, dressage, or dance, she’s driven to master it. “I want to see it to the end,” she said.
Ashie’s parents — software engineers who came to America from India a few years before Ashie was born – agree that, in the words of her father, Ajay, “we have pushed her, obviously.” But they are quick to add she seems largely driven by other factors, including the risk of boredom from growing up an only child, and simply her innate intelligence – with an IQ that’s been tested at 158, high enough to gain admittance to Mensa and other groups for the super-smart.
“She has the genes, we joke about it,” said her mom, Aarti. “We are both definitely not that.”
Her parents said Ashie was reading chapter books roughly by age 2. She admits she wasn’t a typical kid.
“As a child, I was more work, work …” and into her Harry Potter books, she recalled. Her parents pushed her to be more social, but team sports would not be the vehicle. “I went to softball once – I hate this, all this running,” she said.
Ashie was instead inspired to write her first book at age 10, after two boys showed her a turtle they’d found. “They were throwing it around, then they put it in a cooler with no airflow for the turtle, no water,” she recalled. After consulting her mom, she demanded the turtle from the boys and released it in Perkiomen Creek, contacted PETA – which she says sent a warning to the boys – then self-published a book about the turtle called Ring of Hope.
She published a book of poetry in the seventh grade and an adventure yarn in the ninth grade. That was the year she’d left the Spring-Ford Area School District to study at Commonwealth, which makes it easier to schedule all her outside activities.
It was after winning an award in ninth grade from the Pennsylvania Association of Gifted Education that Ashie decided to try college-level courses at Harvard. She took the SAT and by 10th grade was taking her first two courses at the Ivy League school, then a full load of four courses by the next semester. She flies to the campus on Mondays and Tuesdays, staying with an aunt and surrounded by much older classmates. Unlike her less buttoned-down peers, Ashie always wears “business casual” — a blazer, dress pants, and heels to class.
“I was interacting with kids at a different phase of their lives,” she said. ” ‘Want to get a drink at a bar?’ – ‘Oh, give me seven years.’ ” But she said a friend took her under her wing and introduced her to the Harvard Ballroom Dance Association. She matriculated in the undergraduate program last fall and has enough credits to be considered a senior in September.
A Harvard spokesman confirmed her status in the undergraduate degree program of the Harvard Extension School, which is geared toward nontraditional students. Last year the school changed its policy so that students now admitted to that program must be at least 21 years old.
For now, Ashie is advancing on all fronts. She’s currently leading a team of six Commonwealth students to the national finals in the Real World Design Challenge, in which high school students hone their talents in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) by designing unmanned aerial vehicles that will help farmers better grow corn.
Dan Friess said Ashie was the first student who reached out to him when he took over as team adviser this year and helped him get his footing. “She has a positive outlook and positive personality. She’s a fun kid,” he said, adding, “I don’t know if I have my head around all she does.”
Indeed, Ashie works so hard that it’s impossible to do justice to all her diverse activities – her training in classical piano and ballroom dance, her gig as a Zumba instructor and teacher of Indian dance (her graduation performance before 200 friends and family at Montgomery County Community College lasted more than three hours), her fashion collection, the roughly 20 hours a week she squeezes in as a tutor at a local learning center. Having already crammed in three years of college, she has started taking distance learning courses at University College London to accelerate a master’s in crime science.
She’s even designing a wedding dress for a friend, Hannah Bower. Ashie, she said, is “like an inspiration to a lot of girls because it shows you can do anything. You’ve just got to work hard and you’ll get there.”
How does she do it all? Ashie said she starts every day by checking her Google calendar, then rechecks it when she eats her lunch and watches the fantasy drama Once Upon a Time from 11:30 to 12:30. “I can waste that time,” she said. When she needs to concentrate, a trip to the shooting range to practice with her 9mm helps. “The noise-blocking headphones and the back-thrust resonation from the gun focuses me,” she said.
Her goal after Harvard is to earn her law degree at the University of Pennsylvania, then a career in corporate law, which she concedes is “the most boring type of law.” She also dreams of a stint as JAG – judge advocate general – “but my mom doesn’t want me to join the Air Force.”
The one thing she has a hard time squeezing in is friends. They try to get together monthly, but everyone is so busy it’s not always possible. And there’s absolutely no room in her jam-packed schedule for boys, despite the picture in her bedroom of her and a handsome coworker who she says is just a friend.
”I need to get through law school,” she said, “before I talk romance.”