Metro-East Living

Student will get her high school diploma, associate’s degree at the same time

Emily Larner doesn’t want to waste any time before starting her career as a medical researcher.

The Maryville girl is spending her last two years of high school taking classes at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. If everything goes well, she’ll get her Collinsville High School diploma and SWIC associate’s degree at age 17.

“I’m a full-time college student,” said Emily, 16. “I don’t go to high school at all. I just go there after school for clubs and stuff. The classes (at SWIC) count both places.”

Emily isn’t alone. She’s one of about 300 participants in SWIC’s Running Start program, which allows students to finish their last two years of high school and first two years of college at the same time.

Eligibility is contingent on good grades, high performance on a college placement test and referral from a high school.

“Many students choose this option because they can complete their bachelor’s degrees by the age of 20,” said Nancy LeVault, executive director for SWIC’s Granite City and Red Bud campuses, who also oversees the Running Start program.

“Many of these students are going on to be engineers, doctors or lawyers. Their career paths require more than four-year degrees, so they’re getting a jump on it.”

The concept of dual high school and college enrollment originated on the West Coast and gradually made its way to the Midwest. SWIC launched its program in 2012 with 10 students from Granite City High School.

Today, SWIC has 18 participating high schools in the metro-east, including Belleville East and Belleville West.

“There’s a similar program at Rock Valley College (in Rockford),” LeVault said. “But SWIC is the only community college in downstate Illinois that has one.”

Emily is the daughter of Mary Larner and the late Dan Larner. She has an older sister, Jessica Jones, in Kansas City and a 12-year-old brother, David Larner.

When Emily heard about the Running Start program last year, it made sense to her.

“A lot of my friends were graduating, and I was starting to research colleges, and I realized, ‘Wow, college is expensive, and this would be a way to just get ahead,’” she said. “A lot of the credits I’m taking will transfer.”

Emily seemed a perfect candidate. She’s known for her hard work, dedication and maturity, said Patricia Szpila, a Collinsville High chemistry teacher and sponsor of its STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Club.

Emily has remained active in that club — now serving as vice president —as well as Student Council, Health Occupations Students of America, National Honor Society and Science National Honor Society at Collinsville High.

“Even though she was at SWIC, she would come here and practice for our Science Olympiad,” Szpila said. “When she says she’s going to do something, she does it.”

Emily has also joined her high school friends for football games and prom. A former drummer in marching band, she still shows up for its competitions.

Emily took 18 credits in the fall and 17 in the spring at SWIC. She found classes challenging but still managed to pull off a 3.8 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale), making the dean’s list and qualifying for Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

“For me, it’s a little harder because there’s a lot of independent work, and you don’t have homework to help your grades like in high school,” she said. “It’s just tests, quizzes, exams and essays.”

Beyond academics, Emily also has become a standout member of the SWIC College Activities Board.

It’s not weird to be on a college campus at such a young age, she said, noting SWIC has students from all walks of life, including people who are parents and grandparents.

“I love it,” she said. “I love the independence part of it. I can make my own schedule, and I can study when I need to instead of having to go to classes back to back.”

Emily plans to transfer to a four-year university, major in biology or microbiology and become a medical researcher.

Some parents might cringe at the idea of their 16-year-old children going to college, but Emily’s mother has seen her benefit from the academic challenges and contact with other students who are serious and career-oriented.

“It’s raised the bar for her,” said Mary, 50, director of technology and business process for Enterprise Rent-A-Car in St. Louis. “It’s changed her perspective and her perception of what she’s capable of.”

In her free time, Emily enjoys reading and working out. She used to box but now is more into weight training.

Emily also works at the new Collinsville Walmart Neighborhood Market, stocking shelves to prepare for its July 26 opening. Then she’ll become a cashier.

“I’m very proud of her,” her mother said. “She’s a driven young woman who knows what she wants. She works hard and pushes herself. She’s caring and kind. I’m excited to see the goals that she’s set for herself. She’s just an amazing young lady.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter

Emily’s favorites

  • Movie: “Legally Blond”
  • TV shows: “Friends” and “Gilmore Girls”
  • Music: Pop
  • Book: “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini
  • App: Pinterest
  • Hobbies: Reading and working out
  • Food: Chinese
  • Restaurant: Kobe Japanese Steakhouse
  • Sport: Hockey
  • Team: St. Louis Blues
  • Color: Blue
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