Polite Stewart, Jr. received his degree in physics Friday at the ripe old age of 18.
Stewart entered Southern four years ago to enormous fanfare. He was under a microscope as his classmates learned of the student on campus who was too young to get a driver’s license and actually too young to live on campus alone.
He had offers from colleges across the country. Who didn’t want a child prodigy on their campus? But, it would have been difficult for his parents to send him across the country at such a young age.
Instead, he enrolled at Southern where he was familiar with the campus, where he had taken high school-level courses at the school’s famous Timbuktu Academy, and more importantly, he would only be a 10-minute drive from campus.
But with all of the local media tracing his first steps on campus, Stewart was an unwilling celebrity. He just wanted to get down to doing his schoolwork and getting to fit in with his classmates. “The attention I got died down pretty quickly,” he said.
He traces his love for academics to the dinosaur books his father bought him as a young child. Later, as a toddler, Stewart said he began watching scientific documentaries where his interest in herpetology, entomology and paleontology grew. “I was pretty much interested in all the sciences,” he said.
Now, barely an adult, Stewart has set his sights on a career in biological and physical engineering. He spent last summer doing research at North Carolina State University, where he worked on developing self-cleaning, anti-glare glass coated with anti-reflective material and designed to repel oils and water.
After continuing his research in a post-grad program next summer, Stewart said he will start graduate school at one of a number of colleges that have shown interest.
His mother, Ava Stewart, isn’t surprised by her son’s success.
“His father and I could tell early on that he wanted information. There was an intensity in his focus. He started reading when he was three,” she said.
Ava and Polite Stewart Sr. began homeschooling their son shortly after he left daycare, she said. The couple enrolled him in different programs over the years to advance his learning and to let him be around other kids, she added.
“He was doing ninth-grade work at 10 years old, he took college credits at 12,” she said. “I didn’t have any reservations when he started college. We had to let him go, we would’ve been holding him back.”
Southern physics professor Diola Bagayoko has mentored Stewart since he was around 12 years old watching him progress academically and socially over the last six years. He said Stewart is destined for great things.
“He is a very brilliant young man lucky to have had highly responsible parents,” Bagayoko said. “Because of his capability and his focus, I believe he’s set to do great things in science, technology and engineering.”
Stewart’s stay at Southern has included him presenting scientific papers, conducting research and being part of physics-related programs across the country and in Italy. He spent the pass summer conducting research at North Carolina State University.
Stewart said he is ready for the next chapter in his life, which he believes will be in the field of scientific research. But, it might take another course if his interests change, he said.
“My parents and my professors have prepared me for whatever happens,” Stewart said.
* Portions a story published in The Advocate newspaper were used in the preparation of this story.