By Sherrie Norris
Rarely does a high school student graduate at the age of 15 — even before obtaining a driver’s license — but that’s exactly what is happening this week in Boone when Christian Hughes walks across the stage for his diploma.
Set to graduate from Watauga High School on Friday night, Hughes will head to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the fall, the top Aerospace Engineering program in the nation for 16 years. It is at that prestigious school that he plans to prepare for a career in aerospace engineering, and also hopes to one day become an astronaut and go to Mars.
On the surface, Hughes seems a lot like other teenagers. He likes to play video games, particularly Counter Strike. He hangs out with his family, goes bowling with his father every Monday night and looks forward to “Wing Night” at Elevation 3333 every Friday night. Most days, he wakes up around 6 a.m. and goes to sleep around 9 p.m.
But the similarities between Christian and most other teenagers end there.
As most kids his age are finishing up their freshman year in high school, he will be preparing for his first year in college
How does that happen, you may wonder? Christian entered kindergarten early and skipped the first and twelfth grades. It’s that simple. Or is it?
Christian’s family moved to Boone five years ago when his mother, a retired Air Force colonel, accepted a position teaching at Appalachian State University. After moving nine times in his short life, his parents believed that Boone would be a good place for Christian and his sister, Hallmon, to graduate high school.
Hallmon was the valedictorian at Watauga High School last year and is a current sophomore at Emory University, where she hopes to become a neurosurgeon.
Child Prodigy on the Rise
Christian grew up fast, his family told us — and was speaking complete sentences by the time he was 7 months old.
“Before he was 2 years old, he knew the alphabet, could write, and had learned addition and subtraction,” said his father, Chris Hughes.
It was recognized early on that Christian was especially gifted in language and music. He has studied Russian and German for several years, having private lessons in Russian at the age of 12 from one of App State’s Russian professors.
Christian has studied piano, ukulele, trumpet and the psaltry. At 10, he taught himself the trumpet and played the “Air Force Song” at his mother’s retirement ceremony. When he was 11 years old and in the eighth grade, he was allowed to join the Watauga High School Marching Band.
Chris Hughes told us that while he had played the saxophone in high school, his son had never touched a saxophone — until a surprising revelation took place.
“I found my old sax when unpacking boxes one day, and after I was gone for about two hours, I returned home to find Christian playing a very difficult solo that he had heard someone else play. In just two hours, he taught himself how to play and had mastered a very difficult piece.”
Beaver Robinette, current band and orchestra director at Valle Crucis and Bethel Schools, had this to say: “Christian was an absolute pleasure to teach! He had a lot of energy and used it in positive ways. He was first chair trumpet almost immediately. He was also very helpful to other students. It wasn’t until halfway into the year that I discovered he had skipped two years ahead. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Christian and the Hughes family.”
According to his father, Christian believed that if he was fluent in Russian, the CIA and the Air Force might recruit him as an intelligence officer, but space was always his final goal.
Two years ago, he traveled to the Washington, DC area to meet with representatives from the CIA. The CIA offers full college scholarships to accepted recruits, but students must be at least 18 years of age to receive the scholarship.
His father said, “I told the CIA that would be too late — that Christian would most likely graduate from college by the time he was 18 and be on his way to a PhD in Aerospace Engineering.”
Three years ago, at the age of 12, Christian became the youngest student at Watauga High School “It was pretty intimidating,” the youngster admitted. “I come from a short family, but at 12 years old, I was really short.”
“He did not want us to tell people how old he was or that he had already skipped two grades at the time. He wanted to fit in,” said his father. “Even though he is extremely smart, Christian does not come across as ‘nerdy’ and he has a unique ability to fit in with other people.”
And, surprisingly enough, despite being an academic prodigy, Christian has not always made perfect grades, his father added
“If Christian was not challenged academically, he would get bored and talk in class. He can also appear to be argumentative to others when discussing or debating a subject where he is sure that he is right. We have always had to struggle to ensure that he stays academically challenged.”
When he was 13, Christian was invited to Massachusetts to attend the National Academy of Future Scientists and Technologists annual Congress.
“The academy is an annual gathering of the nation’s best and brightest, determined to make their mark in the science and technology industry,” Chris Hughes explained.
“Last summer, Christian came to me and asked if he could graduate this year and skip his senior year. Intellectually, I knew that he could have entered college years ago,” his father explained. “He has taken — and aced — advanced placement courses in high school since he was 12 years old. There was not much more for him to take that would challenge him in high school, but he was only 14 at the time. I was concerned about whether he could handle college. I still considered him my little boy.”
Ultimately, his father told Christian that if he could “do well in a real college class at a difficult university,” he would let him graduate at 15.
Christian applied to take an engineering calculus course at Johns Hopkins University last summer. Christian’s mother, who now is a professor at Johns Hopkins University, convinced them to give him a chance.
Christian went to Baltimore for the summer and took the advanced engineering calculus class in residence — while also taking honors biology and honors junior English classes online.
His parents were understandably concerned, but he made an A in all three classes.
Soon, they discovered Christian could hold his own in a university setting — and even take the lead in classes.
Within months, universities all over the nation were reaching out to him. Three of the top 10 engineering schools in the world accepted Christian, but his dream was to attend Embry-Riddle, which has the top program in the world — and a close working relationship with NASA.
“Embry-Riddle pursued him with a passion, calling and writing nearly every week,” said his father. “They offered him their Presidential Scholarship. “
In all, Christian will receive nearly $175,000 in scholarships while attending Embry-Riddle.
He was also accepted into Embry-Riddle’s honors program, through which he will live in a special dorm and attend honor’s program-only classes as part of the top one-percent of his freshman class.
He has already approached Embry-Riddle about obtaining special permission to not only major in aerospace engineering, but to have a unique minor in flight.
“He hopes to graduate as both an aerospace engineer and a pilot and one day, become an astronaut,” his father reiterated.
According to Susan Irving, business and marketing teacher at Watauga High School, who we learned was among Christian’s favorite teachers, “Christian’s academic accomplishments are impressive and numerous, especially at his age, but what also stands out is his character. He is a kind, bright and hardworking young man who contributes his time and talents to better his community. He cares about others and is the first to step up and help when needed.”
At last week’s student council banquet, Christian’s friends gave him a unique Senior Superlative — “Most likely to graduate from college, before getting his driver’s license.”
Hats off to Watauga High’s youngest graduate in the class of 2019. We have a feeling we’ve not heard the last about Christian Hughes.