Moshe Kai Cavalin is in many ways your typical UCLA student.
He arrived at UCLA, where the competition to get admitted is fierce, after earning an associate in arts degree at East Los Angeles College with straight-A record. And since the fall of 2010, he's been stacking up credits in the math department.
But there is one thing: Cavalin, who was admitted at age 12 and turned 14 on Feb. 14, is one of the youngest students ever to attend UCLA.
Oh, and another thing: He's already a published author.
Cavalin was just 8 years old when he started taking classes at East L.A. College, where he was initially mistaken for the child of a student who was sitting in on class. By the time he graduated with his A.A. degree, he'd won the respect of his teachers, one of whom described him as "intrinsically motivated" and "mentally precocious."
At UCLA, though younger by many years than his classmates, Moshe holds his own in the university's nationally respected math department. One of his professors, Chandrashekhar Khare, had him in two classes, including a fall 2011 course in abstract algebra.
"He seemed to follow the material well," Khare said. "He shows such emotional and mathematical maturity that when teaching, I forget that he is so young!"
Cavalin expects to graduate in fall 2012 or early next year — he's not yet sure — which would put him in the ranks of some of the youngest U.S. college graduates in recent times. The Guinness Book of World Records record is held by Michael Kearney, who earned his bachelor's degree in 1998 at the University of South Alabama at age 10 (and his master's at 14), and there are a handful of other students who have graduated 13 or 14 years old.
Cavalin has also plunged ahead as an author. After repeated inquiries from young people about his successes, he wrote "We Can Do," which gives his views on how young people like himself can do as well as he has in school. It was initially published last year in Mandarin and sold well in Taiwan and other parts of Asia, Cavalin said. An English version is now available in the U.S., as is a simplified Chinese version in mainland China.
"I was able to reach the stars but others can reach the 'Milky Way,'" Cavalin writes in "We Can Do." And at another point: "I only expose my inner feelings with hope that I may lead some kids to see my success and believe that they can do the same or better. If one kid can accomplish it or go far beyond because of my book, I will be overjoyed."
The book also talks about his parents' contribution to his education, including home-schooling before entering East L.A. College, and offers some dos and don'ts about how to finish school earlier than usual.
Among Cavalin's friends is UCLA math student Alexander Carlos, who met Cavalin at East L.A. College and came to Cavalin's book-signing last fall at Ackerman Union to support his friend.
"We sat next to each other in calculus," Carlos said. "My first impression was, 'This kid's a student here? Wow!' But he's mature for his age ... Sometimes you'd just kind of forget he's a kid."
Cavalin, whose Chinese name is Kai Hsiao Hu (obedient tiger), said he chose UCLA after being accepted at several universities.
"It is one of the top schools in the world," he said. "I feel at home here." He said he chose math as a major because it "gives me many choices for my next step."
Cavalin's daily routine is probably not much different from any other student's: up at 7 a.m. to get to classes by 9 a.m., where he says he asks "questions, questions and more questions." Then study, home for dinner with his parents, more study and, on good days, a game of soccer. On the weekends, he plays sports and studies.
Cavalin's mother, Shu Chien, said that her son, who was born at Los Angeles' Cedars–Sinai Medical Center, was a happy baby who started reading very early.
"He picked up words quickly," Chien said. "He was very quick to learn."
She and Moshe's father, Yosef Cavalin, were intent on helping him grow not just academically but physically and psychologically — "the whole thing," his mother said.
Probably as a result, Cavalin has a wide set of interests: piano, martial arts (forms and weapons), soccer, chess, scuba diving, swimming and martial arts movies — he is especially fond of Jet Li, Bruce Lee, Tony Jaa and Jackie Chan. Someday he'd like to get a pilot's license.
Because of his youth, arrangements were made for Cavalin's parents to stay on campus with him in graduate student housing.
Cavalin is a recipient of the prestigious UCLA Regents Scholarship, which provides $2,000 a year for two years; only about 100 such scholarships are awarded each year to incoming students.
UCLA has a handful of younger-than-usual students, though none who are quite as young as Cavalin. UCLA Student Affairs is now formulating plans to bring these students together to talk about the issues they face and what more can be done to assist them. Helping with these efforts is UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who entered UCLA as a 12-year-old freshman and graduated at 15 with a bachelor's in math–computer science. Volokh, who later earned his law degree at UCLA, said young students face unique social adjustments in college, but they also have the advantage of having more time after graduation to try out various career paths.
"Graduating early puts you in position where you can have a lot of acts in the play of your adult life," Volokh said. "It's an extra opportunity to change paths, if you want to."
After graduating from UCLA, Cavalin may take a break or may go on to further studies.
"It would be silly to point to one door when my future offers me many open doors," he said. "I have good choices ahead, and I have plenty of time to choose what to pursue."