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Sarah Aaronson can’t remember a time when she didn't like math.

There was, however, a time when she didn't like how her math skills impacted her social life. From about third grade — after state assessments showed her aptitude — Sarah started taking accelerated online courses.

She liked the challenge, but felt isolated from her peers.

"In sixth grade, I was like, 'I'm fed up with this online math, I'm too lonely, I just want to take math with my friends,’” Sarah says, sitting in the shaded backyard of her Ashland home.

It didn’t take long after she moved back into grade-level math for Sarah to get bored. By the next year, she was taking honors geometry and pre-calculus.

When she entered Ashland High School as a freshman, Sarah took college-level calculus at Southern Oregon University.

“Her first term she took Calculus III and astounded the professor with her ability to score 100% on his rigorous tests,” her former math teacher at AHS, Tammy Anderson, wrote in Sarah’s letter of recommendation years later. That was less of a surprise to Anderson, after seeing Sarah top her pre-calculus classes with scores in the high 90s.

“To encounter a student with Sarah’s academic talent is rare,” Anderson went on in the letter.

On Friday, as Sarah took her final steps as an Ashland student at graduation, her academics continued to make her stand out among her peers. She leaves as the first female student from Ashland to head off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in at least 10 years, according to the school district.

What’s more, for at least her first year, she’ll be going with all of her expenses paid.

“It feels amazing,” she says. “It means I won’t have to stress about paying for school for this year, at least, and can just focus on my classes and taking advantage of all the opportunities at MIT.”

Her mother, Susan Aaronson, tells the story of how her daughter found out about being accepted at MIT. At first, she was waitlisted at the top-tier university. A few other prestigious schools, including University of Chicago and Columbia University, were also contenders.

MIT told its waiting pool of applicants that it would release its decision via email on March 14 — commonly known as Pi Day in reference to the mathematical constant 3.14 used to determine a circle’s circumference.

The emails were set to go out at 6:28 p.m. EDT.

Susan’s phone buzzed while she was still at work. The text from her daughter got straight to the point.

“I GOT INTO MIT” it said.

Sarah had been working at a school fundraiser when she got the email. Ashland High’s math honors society, Mu Alpha Theta, of which she is one of the founders and leaders, was selling pies to raise money that day.

“It was pretty much pure disbelief,” she says. “After we appealed my financial-aid decision and the out-of-pocket cost became nothing, I was elated.”

Sarah wasn’t so sure about whether MIT was a good fit until after she visited the campus and learned about opportunities like their mathematical economics major. However, she says she doesn’t want to commit to a major immediately.

Proofs-based math gets her the most excited.

“I really liked when math became kind of these logical steps and something that you were justifying,” Sarah says. “It wasn’t like you were looking for an answer anymore, like solve this integral or solve this set of equations. You knew what you were trying to get, and it was more about the pathway to get there.”

It might not seem the most natural connection, but Sarah also says that the argument-based process of working with proofs ties directly into another passion of hers: speech and debate.

Sarah is a debater, and a competitive one. She took second place at the Oregon School Activities Association state championship in Parliamentary Debate in high school.

“I really enjoyed it,” she says. “I think I went to practically every single tournament this year, all but one last year.”

She also worked as a math tutor, ran on the cross country team and worked as an usher with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In preparation for college, Sarah has already taken Advanced Placment Macroeconomics, a power and politics class at SOU and of course, advanced math classes. She dreams of occupying a space where those interests can meet.

“In the policymaking world, there’s like a million different places,” she says. “There’s the Federal Reserve, different administrative parts of the government that do economics ... as a staffer on a congressperson’s staff.”

Before then, though, she has a new world waiting in Boston, with the help of a federal Pell grant and other financial aid.

“She’s been very disciplined and proactive and planned her steps toward going to MIT,” Susan Aaronson says. “I just feel she’s being rewarded for all of her hard work.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland High School graduate Sarah Aaronson will be attending MIT next year.
Sarah Aaronson, a valedictorian at Ashland High School, talks about her journey as a gifted student in math.Thumbnail