FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – During her first in-person biology lab on campus, the professor asked the class to find an object and swab it for bacteria. Most students wiped their desks and phones. Sawsan Ahmed reached into her backpack and pulled out her white teddy bear, Ben.
Her Broward College classmates looked at her curiously; one casually asked her age.
“Ten,” replied Ahmed to the college freshmen and sophomores.
At the beginning of the semester, they often referred to her as “sweetie” and “honey,” but by the end, they sought her academic expertise.
That was about two years ago. On Wednesday, Sawsan, who towers at nearly 5-foot-8 like some of her peers, but wears ponytails and other hair-dos carefully styled by her mom, graduated from Broward College, the youngest graduate in the school’s 61-year history. A 15-year-old previously held the record.
The now-12-year-old earned an associate’s degree with a concentration in biological science and a 4.0 GPA. In January, she will go on to the University of Florida, where she will study microbiology and cell science.
“It was awesome. I’m so happy,” Sawsan said after the ceremony, her first graduation. Her favorite part was when Broward College President Gregory Adam Haile recognized her on stage.
“Thank you, Sawsan, you have helped us demonstrate that Broward College can support the dreams, regardless of age or academic pursuits,” Haile said, while the crowd cheered.
Loves Disney movies, Minecraft
At first glance, Sawsan is like any other girl her age. She likes playing video games like Minecraft and watching Disney movies — she recently saw “Encanto” and loved it, although “Zootopia” remains her favorite.
But she has been amazing people from an early age.
Shortly after she was born in Providence, Rhode Island, her dad, Dr. Wesam Ahmed, remembers Sawsan was crying, so he started reciting the Islamic call to prayer. She turned to look at him and immediately stopped crying. He stopped reciting, and she started crying again.
The nurse looked at the newborn, at her father and then back at her. She commanded the dad to start reciting, which led to the end of Sawsan’s wails — again.
Ahmed rushed to his wife’s side and announced he believed the baby’s IQ was high because she had recognized his voice, noting the months he spent by his wife’s side talking to Sawsan in the womb.
Jeena Santos Ahmed laughed at her husband, thinking he was behaving like any other proud dad. She made fun of him, but soon realized he was right.
Now he doesn’t miss an opportunity to tease her about it. “He brings it up all the time,” Jeena said.
If you can drive at 200 mph, try it
At nine months old, Sawsan started saying “mama” and “bye-bye.”
“She was kind of a fussy baby, so it was really good that she could tell me what she wanted,” her mother remembers.
By 15 months, Sawsan pieced together complete sentences. During her visits to the pediatrician, she addressed the doctor directly.
At age 2, she could write and read. (Most children learn to read by 6 or 7, although some will learn at 4 or 5 years, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.) She delivered handwritten letters to her mom, although the grammar wasn’t right as she spelled words phonetically.
It was at that point that her parents, who declined to disclose Sawsan’s IQ, started wondering if she should attend a regular school. They looked at some private institutions, but eventually settled on Jeena, who earned a Ph.D. from Brown University, home-schooling her.
Sawsan learned quickly. By the time she was 5, her parents started including her in family decisions. When they weighed the pros and cons of moving to Weston in 2014 or staying in Rhode Island, Ahmed asked his daughter what she wanted to do. She looked forward to visiting Disney, so she sided with South Florida.
Her parents fostered her interests and personalized her curriculum. Because she appreciated insects, they took her to the Museum of Science in Boston. Because she was attracted to space, they took her to the Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County.
And because they wanted to motivate her love for learning, they emboldened her to ask questions, even if they were difficult to answer. She still asks tough questions, including, “Why are we Muslim?” and “Why are some people against same-sex marriage?”
At 9, Sawsan felt ready to take the post-secondary education readiness test to determine if she could handle college-level work. Her parents said they encouraged her to go at her own pace but to challenge herself.
“I always tell her: You can drive at 200 miles per hour. If you want to drive at 50, it’s OK, but you should try to do the 200,” her father said. “We never pushed her to sit and study; she does this because she wants to do it.”
They thought mom was student
Sawsan enrolled at Broward College in January 2018. She chose dual enrollment to get her high school diploma at the same time, achieving that in the spring.
When she applied, the drop-down menu for the year of birth only went back to 2006; she was born on Jan. 14, 2009. She had to request special paperwork to apply.
When her mom took her to the campus in Davie for the first time to get her ID, people assumed her mother was the student and Sawsan had just tagged along.
“Everyone was staring at me,” she said. “But I was really excited.”
She breezed past most of her science courses, but struggled with her liberal art courses that required more memorization.
In June 2021, her dad, an oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Weston, was transferred to the clinic’s center in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The family moved across the world. Sawsan continued her education remotely because she had been taking all of her courses online, except for the biology lab that first summer.
In the Middle East, she got to go to more amusement parks like Warner Bros. World and Ferrari World. She also went ice skating with cousins and plans to soon join a female basketball team.
Wants to work in medical AI
On the professional side, Sawsan dreams of working with artificial intelligence in medicine. She read a study a few months ago that concluded artificial intelligence could be more accurate than radiology at detecting cancer in patients, so she wants to explore that possibility.
She will take part in UF’s online program and travel in the summers to Gainesville for her labs. She picked UF because she heard it offers a class called python programming for biologists.
“That’s basically everything that I’m interested in combined in one course,” she said.
Asked if she regrets anything, Sawsan said no.
“There’s definitely nothing I’m missing out on,” she said. “I still get to do a lot of things people my age do. Going to college has just been something additional; it hasn’t been replacing my childhood in any way.”