Enrolled at 14, grad at 17 … and found her purpose
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
This is how it began many years ago for Shannon Kerr, who enrolled at Grand Canyon University at age 14, graduated in November at 17, and today is prepping for law school entrance exams.
Kerr’s mom was at “wit’s end” after pulling her out of traditional fifth grade classes to homeschool the self-described stubborn child. So one day she threw her hands up and just told Shannon that she could work at McDonald’s if she wanted and walked from the room.
“I sat at the table with the math book,” Kerr remembered. “For the first two hours I thought it was nice. I was so used to my mother telling me to do the next things, and she wasn’t there anymore.
“After that I felt lazy. God gave me this conscience, and when something is not right, I’ve got to fix it. Within a couple hours I had to grow up and take this into my own hands. So that’s what I did.”
Kerr progressed from that day to working hard year-around, retaking lessons until she got As, and had her high school credits finished by age 13, she said, while starting to take general education and earning college credits. In September 2017, she became an online student at GCU from her home in Utah.
Kerr said she wasn’t mature enough to attend classes on campus. (“I don’t want to be my 14-year-old self again.”) But online, she nurtured an intellectual maturity at GCU, working toward a degree in History for Secondary Education.
“GCU develops your teaching standards and principles. It is something you carry over from class to class. You hone what your approach is to education as a teacher. I really liked that about GCU. We can give you all this information, but how are you practically going to apply that to your classroom?” Kerr said.
She soon would find out in the required classroom practicums and then student teaching. At age 17, she was teaching students her own age.
“It was terrifying. I may come off as older than I am, but I definitely didn’t look the part,” Kerr said. “Teen-agers are judgmental, they’re critical, they’re brutal. If they don’t like something about you or are caught off guard, they will let you know. So that was a hard dynamic to navigate, being taught by someone the same age as you.”
She buckled down and did it, just like that day sitting with her open math book in fifth grade.
“There comes a point when you’ve got to realize that at the end of the day what people think of you doesn’t matter. It’s just something you have to do,” she said.
At the same time, Kerr remembered another thing she picked up at GCU – that a teacher’s focus shouldn’t be on standardized policies but students’ needs.
“You are there to love the student and there to be a good role model,” she said. “GCU really cemented what your role should be in the classroom and how to apply that.”
She moved with her parents, Jim and Terri Kerr, to a new home outside Charlottesville, Virginia, where she finished her student teaching.
By the time she graduated last November, she still was so young that she was unsure of her next step.
“I got a degree in secondary education at a secondary age,” she said.
It was a time of reflection during the pandemic. She didn’t feel as if her place among graduates warranted a trip to GCU to pick up her diploma. Her peers were the ones who deserved the celebration.
“People always react when I tell them I went to college at 14. What I always tell them is I didn’t have to pay rent. I didn’t have bills to pay. I am the picture of privilege,” she said. “At the same time, my peers are single parents who are working two jobs and on top of that were doing a full load of schoolwork. I’m not the one who deserves it.”
She continued working as an educator, tutoring homeschool students, but began to think what else she could do. She volunteered as an EMT and landed an unpaid internship in the county attorney’s office with victims of crime.
On her first day, three women walked in and took off face coverings to reveal bruises covering their faces from abuse.
“We are in a bubble. We go to work, come home and have dinner, repeat. Not that it isn’t good, but we get in a bubble and hear stories of domestic abuse and never see actual impacts of it,” she said. “Their abuser cut them off. They are living in a double wide without running water. When you see the actual consequences of abuse, it gives you a whole new outlook.”
Her indecision on what to do with her life began to lift.
“It is the low moments when you grow. God just gave me clarity. I want to be a lawyer,” she said. “I don’t want to be a lawyer so I can say I’m a lawyer or because I’m so smart. I want to be a lawyer because there are actual hurting people out there.
“You got to get outside yourself and go out and help people.”
It began her hard weeks of study for the law school entrance exams that she hopes to take this fall.
So this is how it continued for Kerr since the day she dove headlong into that math book at her kitchen table, years later recalling what her mother said: “I don’t care how smart you are. If you don’t work hard, you are getting nowhere in life.”
“A few minutes in my presence, you’ll recognize I’m not anything too fancy. But one thing I like about Nike is their logo, ‘Just do it.’ That’s really all it comes down to. You have a choice to sleep in, do what you want with your day, or buckle down, be disciplined and do what you need to do,” Kerr said.
“God gave me the opportunity to go through college at 14. I walked the path He had paved for me. That is the only explanation. I’m not smart. God has just given me the ability to sit down and do the work.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.