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Jefferson graduate earns four-year degree at 18

One year after graduating from Jefferson High School in 2018, Paul Cavanah was tossing his cap again. Cavanah graduated from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities in May with a bachelor of science degree in genetics, cell biology and development with high distinction honors.

It’s an ambitious accomplishment given that he doesn’t turn 19 until August.

Taking early college classes in Bloomington’s Dimensions Academy (DA) High School helped give him a head start but he is also extraordinarily motivated.

“I want to be the best I can be. You have to decide early on what you’re going for. Most students aren’t used to dedicating that much time to studying,” said Cavanah.

Cavanah participated in DA in middle school and DA High School, which includes taking college courses in 9th and 10th grades. In 11th and 12th grades he took postsecondary enrollment option (PSEO) courses at Normandale Community College and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He also took courses over the past two summers.

His parents were aware he was academically gifted from a young age. They discovered the Dimensions Academy program in a search for gifted programs when they were relocating from Virginia several years ago. Their youngest son Troy is also in Dimensions Academy.  

“We’ve tried to point out or provide opportunities, but he has always been very driven and motivated. Without passion you can’t be a success. We frequently asked what he wants to do, and we’ve helped him mold opportunities to what he wants to do. To help position him to reach his goals,” said his dad, Paul Cavanah.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without my dad. I’m motivated, but he has helped me see the whole path. That to do what I want certain credentials are required. So I need to do all those things to get to my goal,” said Cavanah.

Cavanah said DA helped him develop a good work ethic and gave him a boost in motivation, study skills and critical thinking. A competitive athlete in cross-country running, hockey and tennis, he relies on focus and competitiveness to help drive him to succeed academically.

“In college you’re required to go beyond. In the higher level courses, there are things you’re just expected to know. Things that may not be covered in class. You have to actively participate in the learning,” he said.  

When asked what advice he would give students, Cavanah acknowledged that most young people don’t appreciate advice but then they look back and realize it was really good advice. His tips:
  • Figure out what drives you. Are you driven by inside or outside motives?
  • Identify distractions and resist spending time on something you know is not moving you toward your goal.
  • Keep to a schedule and be disciplined.
  • Learn to compromise, communicate and prioritize.
  • Take summer classes to keep your brain firing and to help you get ahead.
  • Maintain a healthy social balance.
“You definitely need to make decisions between ambition and realizing you can’t do it all,” said Cavanah.

How does an 18-year-old college graduate spend his summer? Cavanah is pursuing an internship in artificial intelligence or gene editing and plans to attend graduate school to become a medical scientist, earning combined M.D./Ph.D. degree.

“Everyone has the power to accomplish a goal.”
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