In a recent interview, here’s how Isaiah Roberts described his latest feat:
“I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it, and I had no reason to think that I could. It would just bother me if the day went by and I was left wondering if I could’ve done it.”
No, Roberts wasn’t talking about his graduation from Illinois State next month at age 19—making him the youngest graduate on record. He was talking about the ultramarathon (50 miles!) he just ran, another jaw-dropping example of how far Roberts will push himself to accomplish his goals.
Roberts, a senior marketing sales major at Illinois State who plans to go to law school, will make history when he walks at December commencement at 7,055 days old. But he’s no prodigy, and he doesn’t live at Milner Library. He just works his butt off.
“It was more the challenge of having to do it, knowing it would be complicated, but seeing if I could get it done,” said Roberts, referring to his early graduation.
So how’d he do it? First off, he was home-schooled with his siblings in tiny Magnolia, Illinois. He was able to convince his mom to let him start classes at Illinois Valley Community College at age 15 after scoring a 24 on the ACT. (That took two tries, and lots and lots of practice.)
Roberts also took a ton of credits early on. During his last semester at IVCC in spring 2012, he took 24 credit hours and had an internship and two part-time jobs.
“Those four months went by in a blur,” he says.
He transferred to Illinois State for summer 2012, his first day of classes as a junior on his 18th birthday. And perhaps what’s most impressive about Roberts is that he’s just not hunkered down in his coursework. He’s heavily involved across campus, most notably as a College of Business Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation Professional Sales Scholar and an advertising sales team leader at The Vidette.
As one of only seven sales scholars, Roberts mentors juniors in the Professional Sales Institute lab and gets amazing access to employers that come to campus for events and recruiting.
Professional Sales Institute Executive Director Michael Boehm said he only discovered Roberts’ age by accident and noted that Roberts is “definitely brings maturity that is far beyond his age.”
“He’s one of these young students that has come to ISU with a strategy,” Boehm said. “They’re just amazing young people that are able to see the path that they envision for themselves.”
Roberts is one of two student members on the College of Business social media committee, adding thoughtful insight on the college’s social marketing.
“When he first came to me to let me know of his (youngest graduate) accomplishment, I was taken with his modesty,” said college marketing director Steve Vandiver ’86. “He was almost shy about it and didn’t want to make a big deal about it. His modesty spoke to his personality.”
Discovering his accomplishment
But it wasn’t until recently that Roberts even knew he’d soon be Illinois State’s youngest grad. Last April, he was reading a STATEside post titled “10 Stats About Illinois State That Will Blow Your Mind,” one of which being that a 19-year-old graduate was the youngest ever.
But after doing some digging, Illinois State’s Planning, Research, and Policy Analysis team discovered Roberts would actually be younger than that other student by three days if he walks on December 14, 2013, as expected. (Interestingly, Roberts shares the same birthday, in August, as the previous record-holder, but Roberts will technically be the younger grad because his commencement date is earlier.)
Roberts chose Illinois State partly because of its nationally recognized sales program. As a kid, he’d send letters to his neighbors offering to do odd jobs, and he got pretty good at selling Boy Scout popcorn.
“I liked how competitive it was, and the numbers aspect of the business field,” he said.
Roberts was also drawn to Illinois State by its top-notch mock trial team. Last year, Roberts was an individual mock trial award winner, as well as a member of a winning team that advanced to nationals in Washington, D.C. Mock trial coach Thomas McClure ’76, M.S. ’01, an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and Government, said Roberts is an “ambitious and goal-seeking” student who “possesses a strong desire to achieve.”
“Isaiah does not come off as being a teenager,” McClure said. “He presents himself in a professional and mature manner. I too was surprised of his age when it was revealed to me.”
If Roberts begins law school next fall as planned, he’d graduate at age 22, eager to begin a career in corporate law. He’s also been fascinated by what companies can and can’t do, and Illinois State’s programs offered him the unique opportunity to meld both of his passions—marketing and sales, and the law.
“That’s where I think ISU has been great,” Roberts said.
But college is supposed to be one of the best times of your life. What’s the rush? Why not kick back and relax?
That’s not who Roberts is. He’s not afraid to start law school, or to get his first job. A traditional workweek might even feel easy compared to his four years.
He will, however, miss Illinois State.
“I loved ISU. I would not change a single thing about it,” he said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.