SANFORD - Even to his teachers, Seth Kuenzler's achievement is almost unimaginable.
He's just 18 years old and, at first glance, pretty much your typical high school student. But when he walks across the stage in cap and gown later this spring, he will leave high school with a haul of academic achievements that would impress, even for students many years older.
Like his fellow scholars, Seth will accept his high school diploma from Lee Early College, a public high school operated by Lee County Schools in partnership with Central Carolina Community College. Given its rigorous curriculum, that's an accomplishment all by itself.
But "high school graduate" will be just the first line of his new resume. After his fifth year of high school -- something they call a "super senior" year in early college parlance -- Seth will be awarded the Associate in Arts, a two-year college degree that prepares community college students for university study.
Wait, hold your applause.
Seth also will accept a second two-year degree, the Associate in Applied Science in Laser and Photonics Technology, an especially rigorous, career-focused degree that, in and of itself, challenges some of the best students the college has to offer.
So, finishing high school with a diploma. And two college degrees. With one of them in a particularly challenging, technical field. How unusual is this?
"I've never heard of this happening in this way before," says Dr. Glenn Boreman, a university professor and immediate past president of SPIE, the International Society for Optics and Photonics. "The Laser and Photonics program there at CCCC is a rigorous program, and for someone to come out with that set of accomplishments at such an early age is quite unique.
"It's very impressive."
An Essay That Changed Everything
Many people don't know much about what laser and photonics even is. The specialty studies light and how it can be used in everything from improving the ambiance of your home and moving information in fiber optic cables to slicing industrial sheet metal and performing delicate medical procedures. CCCC's two-year curriculum helps students understand the scientific theories before moving onto operating and maintaining equipment and systems.
In fact, Seth was one of those who knew nothing about laser and photonics until stumbling on some weekend workshops at the college, where young students see how light energy works and what you can do with lasers. That grabbed his attention. Seth was impressed with how you couldn't have cell phones without lasers. Or weapons. Or contemporary manufacturing. It seemed like a wide, new world open with possibilities.
And then came the essay.
It was a contest sponsored by CCCC's Laser and Photonics program to celebrate the 2015 International Year Of Light and Light-Based Technologies. Lead Instructor Gary Beasley asked middle and high school students to consider how light affects their lives. For high school, the topic was this: "How is light used to help or improve your life and the lives of those around you? This can include education, health, agriculture, production and environment." Seth submitted an entry. And he won.
Beasley doesn't remember much about Seth's two-page essay, but he does remember that the night awards were presented, the high schooler seemed especially interested as he walked through classroom facilities and learned about the program. "All of a sudden, he shows up the next fall," Beasley says. "Then, I put two and two together and remembered him winning the essay contest." And the rest, as they say, is history.
Taking Advantage of An Opportunity
From the very beginning, everyone knew Seth was going to be a success. Count Nick Testa among them. As Seth's guidance counselor for two years at Lee Early College, Testa recognized his young student's potential. His academic ability was a given; everyone at Lee Early College has that. But Seth showed a particular drive to succeed -- and to help others do the same.
Testa recalls Interview Night, an evening when school officials meet with potential students, and Summer Bridge, where admitted students spend a couple of weeks in the summer getting used to early-college life. Seth was all in on both, introducing interested eighth graders to Lee Early College and then getting them ready for the transition. "He was great from the very beginning and he's never wavered," Testa says. "There's a reason why he has put himself in this position. It's because he's been such a great student and has just gotten stronger."
As Seth's own schedule morphed from high school to college courses, the workload could have become overwhelming. But Seth applied himself to each task at hand. Most people would call it a strong work ethic; Seth just says he likes to buckle down and get work done. "I never really viewed it as a lot of work, because it's something I love, something I'm passionate about," he explains. "I've heard some people say that you should get a job in something you love, because if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.
"This isn't work for me. It's about getting an education in something you're passionate about."
Beasley, who describes his program as "not a cakewalk," says Seth is the first one in every morning, at least a half hour before class, and the last one out at night. In between, the student seems to operate in a steady state of urgency, as if there's not a moment to waste. "When I leave, I'll tell him, 'Don't forget to turn out the lights and lock the door,'" Beasley says with a short laugh. "That's how he's done it: He doesn't mind putting the time in. He's eager to learn and he recognizes opportunities."
Case in point. Not too long ago, a world-renowned scientist visited CCCC's Harnett Main Campus in Lillington, where the Laser and Photonics program is based, and spent the entire day with students, from early in the morning until 8:30 or 9 o'clock at night. Beasley recalls Seth being at the visitor's side every step of the way -- not like a pest, but more like a sponge. Absorbing every word. Asking questions. Sharing ideas. "Seth takes learning seriously," Beasley says while describing that day. "He wants to be successful. And he will be."
Graduation and Beyond
When he finally walks across the stage at graduation, Seth will be making history. He will be the first Lee Early College student to earn a degree in Laser and Photonics. And he will be the first to earn two associate degrees in the five-year high school program. "What's more impressive is that he's done it with more than a 3.5 grade point average," Testa is quick to add. "He's not just limping through the program. He's doing really well."
The firsts are something Seth knows about. He thought all along that both would be "pretty nifty," but those distinctions haven't really driven his academic direction or provided any compelling flash of motivation. Still, now that graduation is almost here, they're probably crossing his mind more often than before -- and fighting for attention with one big, looming question: What comes next?
Ironically for someone who's been following an intricately mapped academic plan, he's not entirely sure where he's headed. Beginning in April, Seth starts work at the National Ignition Facility, the largest and most energetic laser facility ever built. Three football fields could fit inside the building that's just one part of the world-renowned Lawrence Livermore National Lab, a federal research center not far from San Francisco.
After a couple of years on the job to save money for school, he might study materials engineering at a four-year university. Optoelectronics, a branch of electronics that creates systems using X-rays, infrared and other forms of light, is one area that interests him, but he could end up studying just about anything in science, technology, engineering or math. "I might go into a different STEM field," he says. "I'm open to change."
But what is sure: Seth has a good shot at a bright future, no matter what path he takes.
For information about Central Carolina Community College and its programs, visit its website, www.cccc.edu or call the college at 919-775-5401.
Seth Kuenzler will graduate from Lee Early College -- and with two degrees from Central Carolina Community College.