Must Run in the Family

February 12, 2020

Growing up, Paula Krosky ’92 and her family moved around. A lot. By the time she was 14, Paula had lived in nine different places, and during that time, she was exposed to many types of schools. Her mother homeschooled Paula and her six brothers and sisters for a time. She attended traditional schools. And one year, she went to a small smartup with just 11 students. Over the years, only one of those schools Paula had attended demonstrated the creativity to keep her engaged.

The push to try something new came after Paula had taken some courses with the Duke Talent Identification Program, and her local school district had no way to give her credit or placement for those classes.

“I had completed Algebra 2, but my age suggested I should be in Pre Algebra,” she said. “And there was no other option. The schools couldn’t accommodate who I was or what I was looking for.”

That’s when she discovered Mary Baldwin’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG). PEG is a residential boarding school-like program that gives women as young as 13 the opportunity to earn a four-year college degree from Mary Baldwin University (MBU). Students live in a fully supervised residence hall with their fellow PEG students, but they still have access to all the university’s offerings, like clubs, athletics, study abroad, and service learning.

The program began thanks to a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Foundation and accepted its charter class of 11 students in 1985. According to PEG Director Carla Van Devander, the faculty and administrators who started PEG did so because they saw the demand for academic acceleration — which can often be limited by a school’s policies.

“Sometimes in a traditional school setting, public or private, grade skipping may not be something schools are open to, or they might only offer a one-grade-level acceleration,” Van Devander said. “Sometimes, because of staffing purposes, schools want to keep classes from being overloaded. But there are some students who are so gifted that acceleration is a true need for them. For a certain population of students, we’re filling that void.”

Today, PEG has 20-30 incoming students each year. Across the country, there are just 12 schools with a dedicated program for early-entrance college students. MBU has the only residential all-female program, and PEG is the only program that accepts students as young as 13, whereas most schools wait until students are 16.

“... there are some students who are so gifted that acceleration is a true need for them. For a certain population of students, we’re filling that void.”
Carla Van Devander, PEG Director

PEG will celebrate the start of its 35th year this fall. Christy Baker, who serves as associate director of Early College Student Life, has been around for 20 of those years. During that time, she has seen PEG establish a tradition of inspiring both program members and their families. Younger sisters have joined after their older sisters have gone through the program, as have cousins and friends. PEG even had two brothers who were inspired by their older sister to enter, as commuter students. But PEG gained its first legacy student when Paula’s daughter Rachel ’21 joined the program in 2017.

Paula thought Rachel would take a more traditional education path — the family lived in a neighborhood outside Philadelphia with a quality school district. Rachel knew her mother had gone to college at the age of 14, but she never considered that option herself until the eighth grade, when she began to piece together her high school course schedule for the following year. Rachel had often found herself bored in school over the years and was interested in enrolling in AP classes. She had enrolled in summer programs and online classes offered by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, so she knew she was capable of more independent study. But the school had rules against taking AP classes as a freshman and would not bend.

Rachel decided to read up on PEG, and Paula encouraged Rachel to take the lead in applying.

“I think the girls who do best in these programs are the ones who choose to do it on their own, who embrace the opportunity for themselves,” she said. “I needed her to want to do it enough that she was going to invest in the application process and commit her energy to making it happen.”

Just like her mom, Rachel entered PEG when she was 14.

(left) Paula before the Junior Dad's dance in 1990, (right) Rachel before the Junior Dad's dance in 2019

“Since my mom is an alumna, I have all these bits and pieces of Mary Baldwin history that are fun,” Rachel said. “Like, PEG used to be in Bailey Hall and that building was rumored to be haunted. She tells me what buildings all her classes were in. Or she says, ‘This sign hasn’t changed since I was here. Maybe they should change it.’”

As for Paula, she enjoys bonding with her daughter over things like the long walk to the PAC.

“This has provided one more opportunity for me to connect with a teenager who might otherwise be pulling away,” Paula said. “We have those things in common that help me better identify with her at this stage in her life.”

One professor spans the gap between Paula’s time at MBU and Rachel’s. English professor Rick Plant was in his first year as a professor when Paula enrolled in his PEG class. Twenty-nine years later, Rachel took his English course during her freshman year. Paula’s chemistry professor, Betty Hairfield, is now retired but still lives in Staunton, and both Paula and Rachel occasionally have lunch with her.

While Paula majored in biology and chemistry and played on the volleyball team during her time as a student, Rachel is majoring in history with a minor in anthropology, and she works as a teaching assistant. Van Devander said PEG students have every opportunity to become immersed in the campus community and are encouraged to do so. A PEG student was a student body president a few years ago, and most serve in some sort of leadership role, whether it’s as a club president or as part of the Honor Council or student government.

“Finally, these students have a group who feel the same way about learning, who are motivated and excited to dig deep into the subjects they are studying.”
Christy Baker, associate director of Early College Student Life

Because of the small class sizes at Mary Baldwin, PEG students also often have opportunities that their peers at other institutions do not. MBU currently offers an electron microscopy class during Mary term, where students learn with this highly detailed imaging technique. Van Devander and Baker recalled a PEG alumna who went on to graduate school where her other biology classmates had never worked with one. And in January, a few PEG students had the chance to travel to a conference with one of their professors.

Rachel hopes to one day become an archeologist and plans to attend graduate school. Her mom earned her graduate degree in medicinal chemistry from the University of Michigan before completing a postdoc at Harvard Medical School. Since then, Paula has worked for the National Cancer Institute and a small biotech. She currently works for the pharmaceutical company Merck. Other PEG alumnae have gone to have careers from cardiovascular surgery to educational research to finance. Even a few PEG students have come back to be commencement speakers for MBU. Dorie Clarke ’97, an MBU trustee and author and public speaker, spoke last year, and Christian Peele ’05, who was the youngest graduate ever of the Duke School of Divinity, spoke in 2015.

As the PEG staff gets ready to celebrate the program’s 35th anniversary, they are looking ahead to the coming decades and how PEG might continue to make a difference.

“In the gifted world, it’s always a struggle to reach those underserved populations,” said Van Devander. “In the future, I’d like to find a way to do that.”

But one thing will not change, and that is the personal relationships participants build with their fellow PEG students.

“A lot of alumnae will comment that this was the best part of their whole experience,” Baker said. “Finally, these students have a group who feel the same way about learning, who are motivated and excited to dig deep into the subjects they are studying. For a lot of them, this is the first time that’s happened.”