Jeremy Shuler ’20 was 12 years old when he started classes at Cornell this fall, but he grew up seeing the campus during annual visits to his grandparents’ Ithaca house. A few years ago, he recounted, his parents took him to a stargazing night at the Fuertes Observatory on North Campus.
“It was a cold night, and both the host and Jeremy were particularly interested in star distances at the time,” recalled Andy Shuler ’97, Jeremy’s father.
Jeremy, who had just turned 10, started arguing with the host about a particular star. The two disagreed on the star’s exact distance from Earth and kept going back and forth on the number of light years.
“Were you right?” I asked Jeremy.
“Well, yeah,” he replied, laughing. “I was using more recent data.”
Jeremy Shuler has had a lot of practice being right. He learned to read both Korean and English when he was 17 months old, mastered algebra at four, calculus at seven and then — when he had progressed past the point his mother could instruct him — started teaching himself more advanced math out of books. He has spent the last few years taking online high school classes while working on number theory, quantum mechanics and coding projects on the side.
Jeremy appears at first glance like a typical pre-teen, often offering short, shy answers to questions and twisting around in his chair as we talk. It wasn’t until the conversation turned to math and science that he began to speak with the authority one might expect from a 12-year-old genius. When he did, though, he easily eclipsed everyone in the room, including his parents — two aerospace engineers.
He has always been miles ahead of his peers academically, but it was about three years ago when it became clear that Jeremy would earn his high school diploma before he turned 13. The Shulers were then left to figure out how to go about enrolling the youngest Ivy League student on record.
Jeremy’s mother, Harrey Shuler, said she and Jeremy’s father had to use a paper form to register him for the SATs because he was too young to make an online College Board account. Jeremy was also too young to register for the Common App, so they sent individual applications to each college to which he applied. They even had to submit his Free Application for Federal Student Aid in hard-copy — they are looking forward to next year, when, as a 13-year-old, he can create an online account and save his parents some paperwork.
Armed with a 2320 on the SATs, Jeremy applied to several schools and was accepted to Cornell and the University of Texas at Austin. Ithaca, close to a branch of his father’s company and already familiar to the family, seemed like the perfect place to relocate from their Texas home.
“We’ll see how I feel during the winter, though,” Andy Shuler added.
A slew of media articles published over the summer have raised Jeremy’s profile dramatically, to the point that he was a recognizable figure to many students by the time he started classes. However, he seemed unfazed by the attention, saying only that it has been “pretty interesting” and that he enjoys it.
During the first two weeks of the semester, Jeremy’s mother walked with him to class to help him get his bearings. She said she was surprised at the number of students who wanted selfies with her son. “Some people just [come up and say] ‘You’re the famous boy, right?’ and take the selfie and walk away. I thought it was kind of rude,” she laughed. “But some people would introduce themselves and talk to him.”
Jeremy admitted that he has more homework than he expected, but he said he finds the material manageable (although he added that, since he finished BC Calculus three years ago, he has had to refresh himself on some of the content). He has fallen into a steady routine: he wakes up in his family’s downtown apartment, takes a bus to campus, alternates between Okenshields and Risley for lunch and can now confidently navigate campus on his own.
Even with his quasi-celebrity status, Jeremy Schuler seems to have adapted to college life at least as well as the typical 12-year-old adapts to middle school. While he spends nights and weekends at home or traveling around the Finger Lakes region with his parents, he has made a couple of good friends in his classes and enjoys talking to friendly students around campus. Having spent a few summers at math circles and math camps, he said he is used to being the youngest in the room.
Harrey Shuler said her first hint that her son was unusually advanced came when he was 17 months old.
“I was writing an email to my friend, and I was using Hangul, which is the Korean alphabet, and Jeremy was curious about that,” she said. “So I wrote down all the consonants and vowels, and then I made the sound.”
The next day, she found Jeremy confidently reading Hangul. Once he realized English syllables worked the same way as Korean ones, he almost immediately taught himself to read English, too. He was able to read full books on his own by the time he turned two.
From that point on, Andy Shuler said he and his wife had to constantly scramble to keep Jeremy challenged. “We couldn’t get him books fast enough,” he said. They decided homeschool would be the best way to ensure their son had access to a curriculum tailored to his unusual learning pace, so Harrey quit her job as an aerospace engineer and started teaching Jeremy full time.
For a few years, Jeremy fixated on astronomy. Then, when he was five, he read Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics by William Dunham and entered a math phase that has yet to end.
His mother thinks he picks up mathematical concepts so quickly because he has an innate understanding of equations. “He’s into symmetry,” she explained. “When there’s a function, there should be an inverse function.” While most of us have to follow a set series of steps to solve a math problem, Jeremy can intuit it; he doesn’t just solve it — he understands the equation as a whole.
After graduation, Jeremy plans to pursue an advanced degree, and he predicts he will eventually land in academia. He said his ultimate goal is to unify quantum mechanics and number theory.
“Once he sets his mind, it’s really hard to persuade him not to do something,” Harrey Shuler said.
In his first semester, Jeremy is taking 17 credits spread across physics, engineering, math, computer science and linguistics. He said he misses being able to sleep in for homeschool but is otherwise completely comfortable in the classroom setting. His professors have treated him just like any other student, and both his engineering academic advisor and the University administration have gone through pains to ensure that he transitions smoothly.
Going from homeschool to a first-year engineering student’s workload, Jeremy has less time for his hobbies than he used to. Still, he said he tries to finds time between classes to work on a couple of projects: a dungeon-themed video game and a random map generator.
Confused by the latter term, I asked him to explain what a random map generator does.
“It makes a random map,” he responded.
Pressed for more, he explained that the program allows a user to input several parameters and then maps out one hemisphere of a fictional planet.
“Oh, okay,” said his father, a systems engineer for Lockheed Martin, catching on. “So you input how much is sea, how much is land and how rocky it is, or something?”
“Not quite,” Jeremy said, smiling but hurried, already eager to move on to talk of his game. “It’s more complicated than that.”