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From left: U of T Engineering classmates and friends Xiaoxiao (Maddy) Zhang, Lorna Lan and Brytni Richards (all Year 1 EngSci) work with a robotic arm. I’m so happy to have found the place I belong,” says Zhang. (Credit: Roberta Baker)

The University of Toronto’s youngest student has always charted her own course. When she joined Engineering Science — one of the country’s most rigorous academic programs — at age 14, Xiaoxiao (Maddy) Zhang was already an intrepid urban explorer, taekwondo black-belt, life-long reader, film buff, amateur inventor and one of China’s top students.

By the time she was two, Zhang could read. In first grade, she could recite multiplication tables, an educational milestone that prompted her to skip Grade 2. Then she was on her own.

“No one really skips grades in China,” recalls Zhang, a native of Beijing. “When that happened, they didn’t know what to do with me.”

In Grade 5, Zhang was placed into a highly competitive program for exceptionally gifted children. The program was essentially a year-long test, intended to quantify the students’ intelligence, creativity, memory, focus and problem-solving capabilities. The year culminated in a week-long camp: 70 children were sent to live together in dormitories for a final round of physical and intellectual testing. Participants were taught subjects such as calculus at a university level and tested at the end of the week, with no opportunity for review beforehand. Any child who cried, due to homesickness or stress, was disqualified from entry into the program.

“I don’t remember this, but later teachers told me I was helping other students calm down and focus,” says Zhang. “Everyone there was very smart, and the week was really tough.”

Zhang made the cut, along with 31 others. This class of 10-year-olds would spend the next four years in an intensive program aimed at enabling them to graduate high school at age 14, and take the standardized test — the National Higher Education Entrance Exam — that determines admission to China’s top universities. The program was located within a regular high school, and Zhang socialized with students both in and outside of her class.

“I became good friends with some of the regular high school students, who were much older than me,” says Zhang. “I was often a kind of psychologist for some of my friends — they came to me for lots of life advice!”

When she was 11, Zhang came to Toronto to visit an aunt in Mississauga. During that trip she saw the U of T campus and was hooked: “I fell in love with it,” she remembers. Later, one of her best friends left Beijing to complete his last year of high school in Toronto — they kept in touch by email, and Zhang was thrilled by his accounts of the freedom and independence students were afforded in Canada. She hatched a plan: for the next two years, her second and third in the accelerated high-school program, Zhang convinced her mom to send her to complete her final year at an international high school in the Toronto area. She was 13.

Her mother, a diplomat with the Chinese government, had always encouraged her daughter’s curiosity and desire for adventure. Zhang spent her final year of high school at Ontario International College in Scarborough, billeting with a homestay family and several other students.

It was a year of both excitement and loneliness, but Zhang seized her new independence with both hands. She took to urban exploring, reading restaurant reviews and picking a dinner destination, then mapping a route on the TTC and heading out. She’d arrive at the restaurant and request a table for one.

“I also liked to ride the TTC all around, and just get out anywhere and start walking. I’d have no idea where I was, and would have to find my way home,” says Zhang. “Sometimes it was a bit scary late at night, but I learned to always carry a flashlight in my backpack.”

The father of the family she was living with called himself a self-taught engineer, always fixing things and tinkering around the house. He taught Zhang some construction basics, and this helped ignite a desire to pursue engineering.

Barbara McCann, who served as U of T Engineering’s registrar for more than 30 years, believes Zhang is youngest student in the Faculty’s history. She celebrated her 15th birthday in January 2017, her second semester at U of T Engineering. She and her friends shared a cheesecake.

“Now that I’m 15, I’m starting to feel more like a teenager or young adult — people here, my classmates and friends, don’t treat me like a child. My age is not an issue,” says Zhang. “I’ve never really felt like a complete person before…I think all children sort of feel that way. I’m so happy to have found the place I belong.”

Though Zhang finds the EngSci program challenging — she was shocked to receive a 60 per cent mark on a midterm, as she’d never seen a grade under 90 per cent before — Zhang says she’s encouraged and supported by her classmates. “Everyone in the program is incredibly smart, and there’s so much diversity of backgrounds and interests here,” she says. “But rather than compete, we all help each other with the difficult tasks. It’s like a family.”

EngSci students choose their majors in the third year of the program, and Zhang is already setting her sights high — she’s interested in physics or aerospace, and recently took a tour of the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies where she was captivated by the full-scale flight simulator.

“One of my friends is a trained pilot, and I’m very interested in aviation and space.” If Maddy Zhang aims for the stars, it’s a safe bet she’ll get there.

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