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DOCTORAL CANDIDATE IS 16
UB STUDENT HAS TWO DEGREES AND IS A TEACHING ASSISTANT

Rafael Davtian is a young man in a hurry.

A big hurry.

At age 16 -- when students are normally still in high school -- Rafael is studying for his doctorate at the University at Buffalo. He has, in effect, skipped eight grades of school.

Rafael doesn't have his driver's license yet, but he already has earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees.

Even though he won't be old enough to vote for another two years, he is a teaching assistant in UB's political science department, helping instruct students years older than he is.

"I like to learn and was motivated to advance," said Rafael, a native of Armenia who came to this country with his parents at age 8. "The two main components were constant hard work and determination to keep going."

Academic acceleration hasn't hurt the quality of his work one bit. Rafael has never -- not once, at any grade level -- earned a grade lower than A. He was valedictorian of Utah State University's College of Humanities with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.

And in less than a semester, Rafael has earned a sterling reputation at UB.

"He's extremely mature and extremely bright," said Franco Mattei, director of graduate studies in political science. "He's just at the top of the class."

Rafael hopes to teach at the college level, work for the State Department or an international agency or get involved in electoral politics.

His academic accomplishments are even more remarkable because he arrived in the United States at age 8, knowing just a few words of English.

In search of better opportunities and a Western lifestyle, his family moved from Armenia to West Germany when Rafael was 3 and then to Salt Lake City five years later.

"Almost each and every evening we spent together at home studying English," said Armin Davtian, Rafael's father.

Rafael's progress was meteoric. For example:

He skipped grades 4 and 5 and went directly from sixth grade to ninth grade.

He tackled the last three years of high school in two years and still managed to accumulate 40 college credits.

He earned an associate's degree from Salt Lake Community College at age 13, finished his undergraduate requirements in three semesters instead of four and earned his master's degree in one year rather than two.

Even though he studies from six to eight hours a day, Rafael finds time to play tennis, soccer and chess and to read books for pleasure.

Most accelerated students skip just a year or two of school, and Rafael's academic career is highly unusual but not unique, said Nicholas Colangelo, director of the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education at the University of Iowa.

Colangelo, an advocate of acceleration for gifted students, said even dramatic advancement can work with the support and planning of parents and schools.

"The bottom line is, kids develop at different rates, and some very much so," he said. "The question you have to ask is: What would it have been like for this young man if he stayed with his age group?"

Well-spoken, personable and impeccably polite, Rafael said he doesn't think about age and feels perfectly comfortable with his classmates.

"For me, it has become more or less normal," he said. "I simply accept the fact that here I am. It could be no other way."

Armin Davtian, a manufacturing engineer while in Armenia, said he advocated for Rafael's acceleration based on his progress in the early grades and his love of learning.

Neighbors, teachers and guidance counselors questioned that strategy and raised concerns about the social and emotional pressures Rafael would face. Some argued that he was being robbed of his childhood.

But the determination and confidence of both son and father never wavered.

"I faced lots of blame and condemnation, but I knew I was doing the right thing," said Armin Davtian. "He proved he could overcome. He produced excellent results. Whenever I was asked the question: 'Why?,' the answer would be: 'Why not?' "

Rafael agrees. "I was able to adapt well," he said. "I get along with everyone. I think it was stranger for the people around me than it was for me, actually."

Rafael's academic success has been a family effort.

Armin and his wife, Gayene, moved with Rafael from Salt Lake City to Logan, Utah, so their only child could attend Utah State, and then to Amherst for Rafael's doctoral program.

At Utah State, Armin Davtian enrolled in and graduated from the same master's program as his son.

"He was 14, I was 41, and we were sitting together and taking classes together," Davtian said.

UB provided Rafael not only a paid assistantship, but also a Presidential Fellowship, the highest academic recognition accorded by the College of Arts and Sciences.

"He's one of the most outstanding students we've had in recent years," said Frank C. Zagare, chairman of UB's political science department and one of Rafael's professors. "He more than competes with older students in the class."

Rafael loves UB, and college officials said his adjustment backs up the confidence they showed in him.

"We made the right decision," UB's Mattei said. "I'm glad we did, because otherwise it would have been our loss."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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