Most people can’t imagine sharing a class with someone the same age as a high school freshman, but chances are that many of us do.

The University Transition Program (UTP), hosted by UBC and the Vancouver School Board, is the reason for this. It allows young students, usually between grades seven to nine, to complete high school in two years and enter university around the age of 14. The only program of its kind in Canada, its popularity seems to be on the rise.

The idea for the program emerged in 1990 when two young boys found that they could not find support for accelerated learning within the existing structure of public education in BC. Their parents approached the Vancouver School Board for help, which is where current program coordinator, Daria Danylchuk, first became involved. UBC was also involved in these early stages as the president at the time, David Strangway, supported the idea of early entrance to university.

Although the UTP was modelled in part after an already-functioning program at the University of Washington in Seattle, differences in funding and school systems led UBC’s transition program to become an entirely unique experience for students and staff involved.

“We really learned as we went along because there was no precedent that we could follow,” said Danylchuk.

Now, 20 new students, all from within commuting distance of UBC, enter the two-year program every year. While the class size may be small, it is not representative of interest in the program, which has been growing steadily in recent years.

Anyone can attend an information session on the program and apply for admission. After applying, students attend a large group screening day where they complete off-level testing — writing exams far above their grade level. Top applicants are then selected and interviewed. Student portfolios with examples of their academic competence are also reviewed. Finally, students complete a psycho-educational assessment to confirm they don’t have any learning issues that might interfere with their success in the program. Potential students are also given the opportunity to understand exactly what they are applying for by spending a day in classes with current transition students.

The UTP sees around 100 applicants per year, but this year that number has nearly doubled. Applications are “ongoing — people apply all the time,” said Danylchuk.

The program is currently funded by the BC Ministry of Education. This means that it doesn’t cost a student anything to attend once admission is achieved, but it also means extending class size is difficult. However, considering the rigorous admissions policies, it is doubtful that class sizes could increase much in the first place — requirements are such that few students reach this bar.

Once admitted, students spend two years attending classes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the transition program’s on-campus building. They are taught by three core teachers, supplemented by other professors who will often come in for special lectures to introduce students to areas not otherwise covered, such as philosophy.

After they graduate from the program, the majority of students go on to study at UBC, although some receive scholarships elsewhere or simply have their hearts set on another university. The ones who do attend UBC, however, have been found to be well prepared for the challenge.

“They do really well. The transition program students have a much higher rate of getting high first year averages than the typical first year students we take in,” said Paul Harrison, associate dean of science.

However, condensing five years of high school into two doesn’t seem conducive to the balanced life style many like to imagine 12-year-olds have.

“First of all, we tell them right at the start — don’t sacrifice. If you love sports, don't come,” said Danylchuk. This may seem harsh, but students must be willing to give up activities that take too much time — such as competitive sports — in order to complete the program’s intensive course load.

Danylchuk explains that when people take issue with the program, they fail recognize that it caters to a very specific population.

“When we started, there was a lot of reluctance … about why would you allow somebody to enter university early, why would you take them out of there typical teenage years and put them here,” said Danylchuk. “The answer to that is because these particular students we are targeting are not the ones who are happy in a high school. Secondly, what we know is that most often we underestimate what people are capable of.”

Nevertheless, even students in the program say that, like most experiences, the program can have its downsides.

Tony Chen, a first-year commerce student who entered the program after completing one year of high school, has the advantage of being able to compare the two experiences.

“There were trade-offs for both. In the transition program, I felt like I was more academically challenged, but I felt like there were other portions that were lacking such as social skills or maybe athletic teams that I was part of in my high school,” said Chen.

Nicole Chan, a fifth-year international relations and economics major, adds that the supportive yet exclusive environment provided by the transition program can make it harder to progress into larger communities.

“When you come out to university … you discover that there is a bigger world out there than the microcosm that the university transition [program] nurtures you in,” said Chan. “The biggest con is missing out on the chance to develop those sort of essential social skills in high school … because the program is so limited in the number of people you encounter during those formative years.”

But fourth-year commerce student Marissa Ng doesn’t think the transition program can be compared to the experience of regular high school.

“It’s not fair to say you’re missing out on high school because the transition program is just a different high school experience,” said Ng.

Entering university at a younger age and without a typical high school experience opens transition program students to the threat of prejudice.

“Once people realize your age, they sort of take your opinion less strongly. But on the other hand, once you’ve established your reputation … a lot of people know that I’m younger and have seen what I’ve accomplished at the same time, then the level of credibility is even higher,” said Ng.

“I don’t think there is as much discrimination as you put on yourself,” said fourth-year physiology student Howell Liu. “It’s just about making excuses for yourself or trying to feel sorry for yourself. But at some point, you just have to shut up and keep on going.”

However, confidence and ability don’t always have the power to fight off nerves — especially when students first join the wider campus during the first year of their undergraduate degree.

“It’s sort of like a pavlovian response. Whenever someone mentions age anywhere, your heart starts to beat faster, you start to feel anxious, you start to shut down and you don’t want to talk to anybody about it,” said Chan.

In the end, most students probably know a past member of the transition program. From residence life, to dance class or even writing for The Ubyssey, these students are heavily involved in campus life. When asked if there was anything they’d like to tell the wider campus, the students who have been through the program emphasized that it’s important not to make snap-judgments.

“Not all of us are what you would label nerds or geeks. We all have … our own trials and tribulations,” said Chan. “What you see on the outside comes out of a lot of personal sacrifice. We chose the road that not many people travel and for that I commend everyone who has ever been through this program.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a few years younger, one year younger or 10 years older,” said Liu. “We are all here to learn and we are all here to have a successful future ahead of us — it’s just about being inclusive.”