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COL Gee Liz!

This girl is smart, talented and will stand tall in China

WINONA -- Liz Wente had to pass a verbal maturity test before Saint Mary's University officials would admit her into the school.

One of the questions, she remembers, went something like this: It's 9 p.m. on a Sunday night and all of your friends are going out to see a movie. But you've got a big exam on Monday morning that you should be studying for. What do you do?

That doesn't sound like the kind of question you'd ask a prospective college student, does it? Seems more like the kind of thing you might ask an impressionable high school kid.

But you can't blame the folks at Saint Mary's for wanting to gauge Liz's ability to make mature choices. After all, she was a high school student at the time.

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After completing nearly all of her high school credit requirements by the time she finished the 11th grade at Lourdes, the Rochester girl chose to spend what would have been her senior year of high school living in a college dorm as a university student.

She chose Saint Mary's because it has a good academic reputation, is one of the few schools in the state willing to take post-secondary option students on a full-time basis. And because it's pretty close to Rochester.

"My parents (Colleen and Kevin Wente) were willing to let me go," she says. "But they weren't ready to let me fly. I was only 17."

Turns out, the folks in admissions at Saint Mary's -- and Liz's parents -- needn't; have worried. Liz has made nothing but mature choices at Saint Mary's. So many, in fact, that she will graduate early next month after earning four years worth of college credits in three years. At age 19.

I know this is the kind of gee-whiz story that makes people's jaws drop. And it should. I mean, I thought I was doing my parents a huge favor when I got through high school and college in the standard eight years. Liz did it in six.

I'm telling Liz's story now, as we head into graduation season, with the hope that it might inspire other young people heading off to college -- or their junior or senior year of high school, for that matter.

I don't mean to suggest that every high school student out there should strive to graduate early. It's rare to find a student who's academically gifted enough to test out of required classes and carry the kind of credit load that Liz has during the past few years. And it's equally rare to find a student who's willing to miss out on the senior-year experience.

The most inspirational aspect of Liz's story, I think, is her ambition and drive.

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"I don't try to get through things early just to be done," she says. "I do it so I can go on to the next thing. I thrive on challenges."

Liz challenged herself when she decided to attend college at age 17.

She challenged herself again when she spent a semester studying in Mexico City, not knowing a word of Spanish when she arrived. Well, that's not quite true. "I think I remembered how to count to 10 from watching Sesame Street."

Now, after a second trip to Mexico, she's fluent in Spanish. She also speaks French and is working on Chinese. Which brings me to Liz's newest challenge.

In August, she will travel to China, where for a year she will teach English to Chinese college students.

This is a challenge for all of the obvious reasons, including the fact that she'll be a 20-year-old woman teaching students in a male-dominated culture who are several years older than she. But I should also point out that Liz is 5-feet-11 inches tall. Yoa Ming aside, that's about 6 inches taller than the average Chinese man. "I think I might stick out a little," she says.

After her teaching stint in China is over, Liz says, she'd like to visit some other part of the world.

"I want to travel. I want to experience other cultures and just keep learning."

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Eventually, she says, she'll probably go to law school or maybe pursue a graduate degree in linguistics.

Or, who knows? Maybe she'll do both. It's not like she's running out of time.

Greg Sellnow's columns appear Tuesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at 285-7703 or by e-mail at sellnow@postbulletin.com.

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