Four Gifted Siblings Between Ages 10 and 16 Enrolled at the UI

Thursday, October 28, 2010

By Nina Earnest
Daily Iowan

Today is Gohar Manzar’s 16th birthday.

The tall and well-spoken teenager does not look, or act, her age.

She wears long-sleeved shirts on her thin frame and prefers black trousers to jeans or shorts. She often readjusts the black opaque headscarf that rests over the back of her dark hair, arranged in a low, disheveled bun.

“I’ve had people tell me I look 25,” she said, speaking in a matter of fact way that underscores her maturity.

Instead of thinking about getting her driver’s license like most kids her age, Gohar is more concerned with her pluripotent stem-cell research and a subcellular motility test on Friday.

The young woman has already completed high school. She’s even earned an undergraduate degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. And now, she’s a first-year biochemical-engineering doctoral student at the University of Iowa with plans to go to medical school.

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That’s not to say there’s nothing childlike about her.

Her laugh, high-pitched and carefree, gives away her age. It is the laugh of a teenage girl who loves to go to the mall on the weekends. A girl who admits she loves pink — the color of all her traditional Indian clothes and the integral hue in the zebra-print themed bedroom she shares with her 12-year-old sister.

Most people would find her remarkable — even call her a genius. But what makes her story even more amazing: she has four younger brothers and sisters who are in college. Bushra, 12, Shahid, 11, and Zahid, 10 are undergraduates at the University of Iowa in biochemical engineering, and Johar, 14, is at medical school in the Caribbean.

The academic acceleration Gohar and her siblings have experienced continues to be a controversial practice in the United States, with experts disagreeing on how to foster brilliant young minds. Some say the practice takes away the carefree aspects of childhood, but studies show students can enjoy reaching their full academic potential removed from the traditional American school experience.

The Manzar parents taught their children at home while giving the independance to make their own decisions.

“I’m proud to say I did everything on my own,” Gohar said.

Gohar started learning algebra and geometry at age 6. By 8, she had moved on to calculus. And at just 11, Gohar enrolled in college.

Despite these achievements, she remains humble.

“I don’t consider myself a genius at all; it was really how they raised me,” Gohar said.

Family life

There are three sisters in the Manzar family, the perfect number to pretend they were the three Powerpuff Girls from the popular 1990s cartoon. Each wanted to be the red-headed leader, Blossom. Holding a strand of hair up to the light, Gohar explained whichever sister’s dark hair looked reddest in the sun earned the right to the favored role.

It was usually Gohar taking her position as the oldest.

She is still the leader, providing direction for her three siblings at the UI.

Though it may seem unusual to have so many accelerated children in one family, it may not be an anomaly. And if one child does something extraordinary, siblings are likely to follow, said David Shenk, the author of the New York Times best-selling book The Genius in All of Us.

“There’s a culture of greatness that involves motivation and high standards,” he said.

Genes, Shenk added, don’t determine anything without considering the environmental influence.

“If you look really closely at the lives all the kids have led in their families, you’d be able to explain almost everything in their abilities simply by the lives they have lived,” he said.

Sitting in the Old Capitol Town Center food court, UI students Bushra, Shahid, and Zahid each appeared at Gohar’s side. They are asking their sister to help them find graphing paper for their engineering courses, and she assures them she will take care of it.

Gohar wants to help them, she said as they walked away, but she understands they need to make their own mistakes.

“It’s important to let them grow up and do that kind of learning so they can really say, ‘I did it,’ ” she said.

That is, afterall, what her parents did for her.

An American dream

Gohar’s mother, Surayya Manzar, said it was easy to raise her first child. Gohar woke up at 6 a.m. each day after sleeping through the night.

“No fussing,” said Surayya Manzar, 39. “When I think about her now, from the beginning, she was very calm.”

While quietly trying to calm her two youngest children — Hamid, 7, and Abid, 4 — she spoke about her family’s journey in the United States.

Henna was fading from her hands, a remnant from Ramadan celebrations in early September. Her quiet accented English, the language she learned after moving to the United States from India with her husband, carried above the boys’ hushed giggles.

Surayya Manzar was born to Indian parents in Oman, a sultanate bordering Yemen on the Arabian Sea. She married Khalid Manzar, a cardiologist.

Urdu, an Indic language of Pakistan and India, is her first language, and she has passed it on to the children.

“Joota,” Abid cried.

“Shoes,” his mother translated and laughed.

The family speaks Urdu at home. Gohar also added Hindi and conversational Arabic to her language repertoire. She attributes her Arabic skills to her mother, who pursued a master’s degree in the language before she moved to the United States in 1993 to be with her husband who had a fellowship in New York.

Gohar was born in 1994 in Staten Island, N.Y., though the family didn’t stay there for long.

Following Khalid Manzar’s fellowship opportunities, the growing family moved frequently: New Jersey. New Mexico. Las Vegas. New Jersey again.

And then Clinton, Iowa, in November 2002.

Acceleration

Joy Horst taught first-graders in a second-story classroom of Elijah Buell Elementary School in Clinton — including a young, “stunning” girl named Gohar Manzar.

“I remember that Gohar was a truly talented and gifted person from the start,” the 35-year teaching veteran said. “She was an incredible writer. She was just creative, and she had a vocabulary that was just accelerated beyond what I had ever taught in first grade.”

Horst modified Gohar’s curriculum, because the young girl read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Gohar, she said, was not shy or timid despite her abilities.

“She was always willing to help others,” Horst said. “She didn’t flaunt her intelligence.”

At age 6, Gohar became homeschooled. The family often moved because of their father’s position as a cardiologist and found it a more realistic option.

Within four years, she was in college.

Gohar and her siblings are some of the few children to experience such a large leap in the academic world, known as acceleration. Defined as providing academic material to a student at a faster than expected rate, the issue remains controversial in the United States.

Some schools across the nation do not allow acceleration for gifted students in fear of the effects on a child’s social and emotional development, said Maureen Marron, an administrator for the Institute for Research and Policy on Acceleration in the UI Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development. But these doubts, she contended, can be “misconceptions” that don’t consider what a child really needs.

“What we know from the literature is that students benefit socially, they benefit emotionally from acceleration,” Marron said. “They are ready for the most advanced content, and they typically end up being happy when they are with older people who share some of their academic interests.”

The number of children undergoing acceleration is undetermined due to poor data collection, Marron said.

In the current American school system, some experts believe gifted students are held back from their full potential.

“Often, the focus is on students on the low end of the distribution, with how do we bring them up to proficiency,” Marron said. “So our focus is how do we really develop those needs of those who are beyond proficient.”

Gohar believes acceleration through homeschooling helped her to be successful. She worked hard, but she didn’t face isolation — which some people fear occurs with accelerated children.

Extracurricular activities such as swimming allowed her to spend time with her peers.

“Homeschooling isn’t for everyone,” Gohar said. “It really suited me, because I was able to go at my own pace and learn what I wanted to learn.”

Gohar said her father is the “real genius” of the family. He would explain subjects to his wife before she in turn taught the children.

Three years after leaving elementary school, Gohar and her sister Johar took the SAT after placing in the 95th percentile in all subjects on the seventh-grade Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

The girls then decided to enter the UI in the fall of 2006 at ages 11 and 10, respectively, because of their high scores.

“What child wouldn’t want to go to college?” Gohar said.

But in Feburary 2007, problems with her parents’ green cards — both legal aliens from India — cut their time at Iowa short. Though Gohar and her six brothers and sisters are U.S. citizens, five of the seven Manzar children returned to India with their parents.

Only Gohar and Johar remained in the United States. The girls left Iowa after only a semester at the UI to attend the University of Texas-Arlington and live with an aunt and uncle.

Gohar graduated from the University of Texas-Arlington summa cum laude in the fall 2009, finishing her degree in three years instead of the traditional four. Johar graduated in the spring of that year.

The Manzars, who left for India after encountering immigration trouble in the United States, moved to Canada in August 2007. The mother acquired a visitor’s visa to America and moved back to Iowa in August. She now lives with the children in Iowa City, while their father remains in Canada for work.

Johar is attending medical school at Windsor University in St. Kitts in the Caribbean. Gohar had the option to enroll at Windsor but knew she wanted to return to the UI.

“I kind of felt stolen when I left after my first semester to go to Texas, so I got back to experience what I missed out on,” she said.

‘She never made a secret of it’

Gohar sat across from Nicholas Zavazava in his office, on the fourth floor of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics last spring — the first semester of her Ph.D. program — in hopes of joining her third and last lab rotation. Gohar plans to select one of the three labs to finish her doctorate before starting medical school.

Gohar told Zavazava, the director of transplant research at UI Carver College of Medicine, about her interest in the medical field. After reviewing her transcripts, he asked her why she just didn’t apply to medical school.

She said it would be too difficult because of her age.

He couldn’t tell she was 15 years old, but now her age is common knowledge in the lab.

“She’s never made a secret of it,” Zavazava said.

The doctor quickly became familiar with Gohar’s unique talent: she hears information, internalizes it, and it remains in her mind, “like a computer cranking numbers,” he said.

Since their arrival on campus, many have noticed the young Manzar children walking to class and wondered who they are.

Michael Barron, the UI director of Admissions, who has worked for the university for 23 years, said he could count the number of such rapidly accelerated students who have attended the university on one hand. This year, a total of 225 undergraduate students are under 18, though most of them aren’t so young.

Marron from the acceleration institute agreed; having four young children from the same family at a university is extremely rare.

“It’s unusual for any given person to have such a high level of accomplishment at such a young age, so certainly you would expect it’s even more unusual for everyone in the family to do that,” she said.

Looking forward

Gohar said she wouldn’t want to be in a different place, physically or mentally, nor is she “particularly wistful” about middle school or high school.

“The knowledge I have right now about the world, I think it’s very important if you want to make it a better place and to be a productive member of society,” she said.

Her attitude mirrors what many studies have found about early college entrance: a high satisfaction rate with the choice to accelerate.

Medical school at Johns Hopkins, Duke, or Harvard universities could be in her future.

But today is her sweet 16, a milestone worthy of an ice cream celebration with friends. But she has no plans to buy a car.

She doesn’t know how to drive.