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High school student graduating with six associate degrees

April 19, 2019 GMT

Besides being an academic whiz, Michael Sands says he has a green thumb, creating a hydroponic system with wood and PVC pipes. The system yielded a large crop of kale ? a vegetable he realized he doesn’t like. (Courtesy of Liz Sands)

He talks as fast as he thinks, as fast as his last few days of high school are zipping along to their end, which for Michael Sands also means he’s very close to finishing the first half of college undergraduate work.

In Michael Sands’ world, there is no time to pause.

“I’ve been told that I talk fast,” he says, talking fast. “But I always hear the spaces between the words.”

This kid. In two weeks, Sands, who just turned 18, will don two different caps and gowns for two different commencements. On May 3, he graduates from College and Career High School, a magnet school within Albuquerque Public Schools.

On May 4, he graduates from Central New Mexico Community College with a stunning six associate degrees in the not-so-easy subjects of biology, chemistry, physics, math, liberal arts and integrated studies. He’s among the seven of the 66 students graduating from College and Career with five or more certificates or degrees, CNM spokesman Brad Moore said.

“I don’t know how he does it,” said his mother, Liz Sands. “He’s taking 20 credit hours a semester, and they’re hard classes. If anything, I was trying to slow him down, you know, take time to socialize, be a kid, have fun.”

Michael insists that he is having fun. Learning, he says, is fun. Understanding the world around you? Fun!

He bristles when asked if he considers himself a nerd.

“I don’t go by stereotypes,” he says.

Michael Sands, 18, graduates next month from both high school and CNM with six associate degrees. (Courtesy of Liz Sands)

He’s also got a busy social life.

“I start classes around 7:30 a.m. and often go until 8 p.m., so you have to be kind of creative to be social,” he says. “We go to movies late at night. Or we go to lunch. It’s not damaging to a social life.”

He hasn’t always been an academic wunderkind. And then again, he has. It just took time for the rest of the world to catch up.

“He was actually put in special education when he was in elementary school, so that held him back a little bit,” his mother said. “He was having trouble with vocabulary. They thought he needed a special class in English.”

Michael remembers that in his low-achieving years, he was just being bored.

By fourth grade, and with an engaging teacher, his reading level soared to 11th grade. By middle school, he was a superstar, earning A’s in every class every year then and in his two years at La Cueva High School and two years at College and Career High School, with dual credits at CNM. He scored in the 99th percentile in both the SAT and ACT, his mother said.

“He seems to have mastered English,” Liz Sands said.

Michael transferred to College and Career in his junior year, attracted by the idea of knocking out two years of college credits while finishing high school.

“I’m looking at going to medical school and becoming a neurosurgeon, and that’s easily over 10 years of school, so having two years less will be nice,” he said. “Plus, most high schools require you to do a lot of busy work. With college classes, you take what you are interested in, what you need, learn as you want about what you want.”

That he earned six associate degrees instead of one just seemed natural.

“I started working on an associate’s in biology and found that it only took a few more credits to get a degree in chemistry, so why not?” he said. “Then it took a few more credits for physics, so why not?”

And so on.

That meant summer school and classes during winter break, but, you know. Fun!

“I think the reason why kids fall behind in school is because the school system focuses more on requirements than interest,” he said. “It’s teaching to the test, not teaching to learn.”

His mother takes little credit for her son’s academic success. She and her husband, Bill, aren’t educators or scientists. They’re just good parents.

“The thing is, he totally motivates himself,” she said. “He takes study breaks and watches brain surgery on YouTube.”

Michael will attend the University of New Mexico in the fall. Before then, he heads to Ecuador for the summer to teach organic farming techniques as a volunteer with Amigos de las Americas, a nonprofit that provides collaborative community development opportunities in Latin America.

He obviously has no plans to slow down.

“I kind of learned how to deal with it all,” he said. “It was hard for a while, but it’s kind of worth it, I think.”

Then he raced off to finish a math quiz and get on with it.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.