Prodigies at Penn

By Donna M. Owens

Prodigy [prod-i-jee] noun. Extraordinary person or thing. Sensation, genius, phenomenon, wonder

Years before they entered the same Ivy League university, joined NSBE and embarked on engineering paths, Brittney Exline and Kevin Holmes were bright, young prodigies.

In fact, Exline was barely out of diapers when her inner genius began to emerge.

“I was a very curious child,” recalls the Colorado Springs, Colo., native, now 21. “I was reading at like, age 2. I was a big fan of jigsaw puzzles. By (age 3), I was doing second-grade workbooks.”

On another side of the country, Kevin Holmes also showed signs of being a whiz kid.

“I always yearned for knowledge,” says Holmes, 20, who grew up in Upper Marlboro, Md., near Washington, D.C. “My sister was older. I was always trying to steal her homework assignments.”

By the time Exline and Holmes entered elementary school, it was apparent the youngsters were academically gifted. Holmes, who received an early scholarship to a prestigious Catholic academy, was skipped from first to third grade. Meanwhile, Exline was in charter schools and was promoted to middle school when she was 8. Later, she juggled her studies with dance lessons and pageants, before completing a rigorous baccalaureate high school program in two years, at age 15.

When it came time to select colleges, Exline and Holmes each had their pick of top institutions. In the end, both were most impressed by the University of Pennsylvania, founded by Benjamin Franklin and situated on a leafy campus in West Philadelphia. Besides a highly regarded School of Engineering and Applied Science and nationally known events such as the Penn Relays, the university also has an active NSBE chapter.

Many Options

To be young, gifted and black,
Oh what a lovely, precious dream
To be young, gifted and black
Open your heart to what I mean.
— Nina Simone

When Exline entered Penn, she was still 15 and reportedly the youngest African American ever accepted to an Ivy League institution. In addition to being an engineering and computer science major, she doubled her academic load by minoring in math, psychology and classical studies. She also found time to tutor children in the community and work as an intern one summer in the African nation of Cameroon, helping provide laptops to children.

Even for a science wunderkind who also speaks six languages, tackling college coursework such as algorithms, number theory and computer organization and design had its challenges.

“I did well academically, but I wasn’t ahead of anyone else,” says Exline, who graduated with a 3.3 GPA in May 2011, at age 19, and is employed by a software firm outside Boston. “Penn is full of talented, driven people.”

Holmes echoed that sentiment.

“As a freshman, I had a rude awakening. Everyone here is the cream of the crop,” he says. “It took me a couple of semesters to do my best. I had to light a new kind of fire.”

The soon-to-be graduate is on track to receive both a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering and a master’s in mechanical engineering next May, at age 21. Holmes has also taken part in extracurricular activities that range from serving as vice president for the Penn Nanotech Society, to singing in an acapella group, to holding various offices within NSBE. As finance chair for NSBE’s Region II in 2012–13, he pursued novel sources of corporate sponsorship and urged increased attendance at conferences.

“I love this organization,” he says. “It puts you in contact with a network of people who are going through the exact same thing, in terms of trying to excel in school and gaining leadership experience that will help your career.”

Toward that end, Holmes has already completed internships with such companies as GE Transportation, and he spent this past summer interning at Chrysler, in Detroit.

“I’m passionate about cars and have been from an early age,” he says. “Once I earn my master’s, I’d really like to work in the automotive industry, using my engineering skills to develop new concepts.”

Exline is equally excited about her career.

“I like what I’m doing now,” she tells NSBE Magazine. “I’m developing technical skills and leadership skills, and there’s a lot of teamwork.”

She isn’t certain what the future holds professionally but feels that it’s full of promise.

“I feel like there are so many options,” she says

Donna M. Owens is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, Md.

When Exline entered Penn, she was still 15 and reportedly the youngest African American ever accepted to an Ivy League institution.