AUT’s youngest-ever student: Alisa Pham, 12, beats sister’s record

At age just 12, child genius Alisa Pham is AUT university’s youngest student, beating a record her sister set two years ago.

Alisa’s sister Vicky Ngo Ngoc, who graduated last year, was 13 when she entered AUT in 2020 and was its youngest student at the time.

“Alisa is our youngest ever student,” AUT spokeswoman Alison Sykora said.

“Our academics report Alisa is engaged, enjoying herself and impressing everyone with her maturity and intelligence.”

Alisa is enrolled in AUT’s Bachelor of Communication Studies with a double major in digital branding and creative branding at an age when most other kids are at intermediate school.

The exuberant child genius has not gone unnoticed: Stanford University’s Office of Undergraduate Admission also wants to interview her as a potential freshman applicant.

AUT said it had to put in place similar support systems it set up for Alisa’s sister.

“This includes special security arrangements, an ambassador to accompany her to classes for her first semester, and regular meetings with support staff.”

Alisa and her adopted sister Vicky came to New Zealand from Vietnam in 2017 with their mother.

She started as a Year 4 student in St Thomas’s School in 2018, and was fast-tracked to Auckland Normal Intermediate and to Selwyn College last year.

She completed her high school studies in 10 months, largely through home studies because of the lockdowns.

Alisa’s application to study law at AUT was unsuccessful, but being accepted into communications studies could be “a blessing in disguise” because her dream is to become a journalist, she said.

She said she draws inspiration from her sister Vicky, who graduated in December from AUT’s BSc – Applied Maths programme at age 15 and is now pursuing her PhD in data science.

Despite her advanced intelligence, Alisa is clearly still a child and was giggly during the interview when she talked about her hobbies.

Alisa said her favourite pastimes include playing squash, swimming and art.

“I like to draw comics and fashion designs when I’m on my own, but with friends I like to play sports or gaming,” she said.

“I’m just like all the other kids, I have normal hobbies,” Alisa insisted.

Alisa’s mother, who did not want to be named, said she chose to move to New Zealand so her children could have a safe, nice environment and better opportunities.

“I am a single mum, so my life focus is on my two daughters,” she said.

She said Alisa was “highly intelligent” from a very early age – she started reading books on her own at age 2 – and was thinking about solving world problems even as a child.

“She is also great with language, and I am so impressed at how she is able to master the English language in the short few years that we’ve been here,” her mother said.

“Alisa has no problems socialising with other kids, but she needs to be engaged in a more mature way, and that is why I feel university may be good for her.”

Her mother said Alisa, with her guidance, co-founded the New Zealand branch of a Vietnamese NGO called The House of Wisdom in 2020, which provides online classes on English, soft skills training and investment advice.

“Alisa has been running online programmes and giving advice to other Vietnamese children, and recently participated as a speaker to support Vietnamese children who have lost their parents due to Covid-19,” she said.

Her mother said Alisa had also been actively investing in the NZ stock market in the past three years.

Selwyn College deputy principal Andrew Speed said Alisa joined the college from St Thomas’s where had been deemed to be prepared for high school at age 11.

Speed said Alisa excelled in the junior curriculum and achieved university entrance by completing level 2 and 3 internal and external assessments.

“Alisa has shown the independent learning style and motivation that will enable her to excel in the university environment,” he said.

She achieved six Excellence and nine Merits over the course of her NCEA studies at the college at age 11.

Alisa said she was settling into university life.

“I was a little nervous at first, but I guess it helped that my sister had gone through it,” she said.

“Classes have been pretty easy so far. In fact, one of the reasons I fast-tracked my schooling [was] because I find school quite easy, so I’d probably want to do the same with uni.”

Alisa said she is enjoying classes, but is looking forward to more in-person contacts at university when the pandemic situation allows.

As for her future, Alisa still plans to do a law degree after completing her communications studies – but her dream is to work in the media.

“I want to pursue a career in media and my dream is to be a journalist,” she said.

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