Monday, January 8, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, January 8, 2001

Teen genius 'not that different'

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Staff Writer

By any measure other than his own, Kiwi Camara has hurried through life.

Kiwi Camara, 16, graduates from Hawai'i Pacific University on Wednesday.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

He read by age 3, scattered words such as "hallucinating" in conversation by age 5 and always finished books for the next school year before lazy summer faded to a close.

When the pace of high school proved sluggish, he skipped it. He roared through college in two years, taking as many as 21 credits a semester. Now, a cell phone clipped to his belt keeps him in touch with the office, lest he miss out on anything.

"He just likes to finish, to get ahead," said Enrique Camara, Kiwi’s father. "We had to tell him to play — Why don’t you be a kid?’ "

At the ripe age of 16, Kiwi will graduate from Hawaii Pacific University with a degree in computer science Wednesday. He’ll receive a special deans’ award — the first the school will give — that recognizes outstanding academic achievement. And if he chooses to continue with the program, he’ll receive a master’s degree in information systems this spring, a month before he turns 17.

In August, he hopes to enroll at Harvard Law School. The University of Pennsylvania, one of the top 10 law programs in the nation, has already accepted him. Yale called and asked him to apply, likely impressed by his LSAT scores in the 99th percentile. He’s received all A’s in his undergraduate and graduate classes at HPU, although for Kiwi, that usually goes without saying.

But to Kiwi, his extraordinary intellect is nothing to advertise. His rapid-fire pace isn’t stressful.

"I’m not that different," he said, wearing an aloha shirt and sipping iced tea, taking his leisure at lunch. "I don’t announce it. I enjoy the experience."

Bored at Punahou

Born in the Philippines and raised in Ohio, Kiwi and his parents, both doctors, came to Hawaii when he was 10. He enrolled at Punahou School, but within a few years found himself bored in what is generally considered one of the state’s top college preparatory schools. His SAT scores at age 12 were high enough to merit state and national recognition.

His uncle, Jorge Camara, also a doctor, remembers when Kiwi took the SAT. "He hadn’t even taken the geometry and calculus classes yet that he needed for the math section. He was just using his ability to glean information and put things together. He learned as he took the test."

Based on his SAT scores, HPU offered him a free course of his choice. The downtown campus was near the Camara’s home, and after one summer class at HPU, he enrolled in another.

"I felt really comfortable letting him go because he didn’t have to take a bus or anything," said Theresa Danao-Camara, Kiwi’s mother. "He could buy an ice cream on the way to class. We paid for another course. Then his dad said, You’re having so much fun, do you want to stay?’ I was worried. Technically he would be a high school dropout. I thought it might cause problems when he applied for graduate schools on the Mainland."

Karen Murphy, an instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Waikiki, dances with Kiwi Camara. Ballroom dancing is just one of Camara’s many talents.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

There were other misgivings. "They all party. They all drink. How are you going to fit in?" Danao-Camara said. "That was my biggest concern:
How are you going to fit in?’"

Kiwi’s father also thought about all of the traditional high school activities his son would miss. "To me as a parent, it was a difficult decision because academics aren’t the only important things you learn in high school," Camara said. "There’s overall character development, social and emotional development. Really, we just left the decision up to him. It was difficult as a parent to let go."

Kiwi insisted the jump from eighth grade to college made sense. And he’s made it work.

He was elected to student government and became the president of the computer club. He goes to campus poetry readings a few times a year, but admits that the free pizza is his favorite part of that activity. He has organized some luau and was the student government sponsor for the school’s first-ever Spring Formal. In typical Kiwi fashion, he was one of the best dancers around; he’s also a silver-medal standard ballroom dancer.

"He’s just a phenomenon," said Jeanne Rellahan, dean of international studies at HPU. "He’s done great. He writes poetry. He fits in. He’s his own person. I’m not sure he is Mr. Popular, but he’s really accepted. He has friends who are very much like he is, the brightest and most talented. They’re social."

Not a show off’

He might be 16, but it’s difficult to pin an age on Kiwi. "I guess I feel on par with the people I go to college with," he said. "That would make me 21." At clubs, his mature attitude masks his young features. He says he dates occasionally, but the girls are usually in college, not high school.

Rellahan said Kiwi’s ability to ease into college is partly due to his attitude. "He’s kept a really low profile," she said. "He hasn’t made a point of drawing attention to himself. He’s not a show off. He’s modest. Most 14-year-old geniuses act precocious. With Kiwi, it’s like you could turn your stock portfolio over to him."

Kiwi has always been ahead of his time. Even as a toddler, he preferred the company of 9- or 10-year-olds. When the Camaras visited family in the Philippines, Kiwi astonished relatives. They told Kiwi’s father that conversing with the boy was "like talking to an old man. It’s like talking to another adult.’ " Each time he enrolled in a new school, a few weeks would go by before the Camaras got a phone call from the principal.

"The message usually was, This kid is different,’" Camara said. "We got used to it and expected that call."

Kiwi’s academic achievements fill pages. He has published original medical research in the Hawaii Journal of Medicine on alternative treatments for inflammatory arthritis. He is a member of MENSA, the organization of people with high IQs, and is a member of the New York Academy of Science by special invitation.

Leaving Punahou at age 14 turned out to have another benefit for Kiwi: He would finally fit in with an age group, even though it wasn’t his own.

"There have been occasions where I have thought it might not have been the right decision. But it’s turned out all right," he said. "I’ve made quite a few friends. It wasn’t that hard to adapt to college."

In his spare hours, Kiwi reads legal and scientific books, especially ones about artificial intelligence, and watches CSPAN. He loves to cook but hasn’t been in the kitchen much lately.

His college friends have even poked a bit of fun at his refined tastes. "It makes him reach out more socially," Danao-Camara said. "His friends push him. How many kids tango? How many kids listen to Brahms? His friends at college donated CDs to him, things like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. It was like, Let’s teach Kiwi how to listen to real music.’ "

Camara has a good sense of humor, although it is slow to surface. "You would think he would be a nerd," his uncle Jorge said. "He’s actually the life of the party. And everyone always wants to dance with him."

Beyond Hawaii

When Kiwi leaves for law school, he’ll have little else to return to other than family. Camara realizes that the opportunity for him to do post-graduate work or find a permanent, challenging job is simply not available in the Islands. "I would like to come here eventually, but I probably won’t be back for a while," he said.

Enrolling in Harvard is a dream of his. The thing he’s looking forward to the most: "For one thing, working with people who are really, really smart."

Jorge Camara said, "He’ll be around a lot of other bright kids. I think it will be good for him to have intellectual peers as well as intellectual competition. I think he’ll excel."

Rellahan also said Kiwi is likely to find a home at Harvard that he can’t have in Hawaii. "He will no longer be that unique," she said. "I think it’s going to be great for him. He will finally meet his match."

Kiwi grins when he thinks of where he would be if he had remained in high school, in the middle of what should be his junior year. "It would be my turn to throw the Punahou Carnival," he said.

Instead, until law school begins, Kiwi will work with Cades Schutte Fleming and Wright as an information systems specialist, where he does legal research in addition to his computer work. "I enjoy what I do. I don’t really think of it as stressful," he said. "It’s been hard work. But it hasn’t been unpleasantly hard."

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