WATERLOO — The youngest graduate at Hawkeye Community College’s commencement Friday will have to wait a couple weeks to get her high school diploma.
Gillian Gergen will graduate from Janesville High School on May 26. The 17-year-old senior has been working toward both the diploma and an associate’s degree in criminal justice for the past three years through concurrent Hawkeye courses. Concurrent courses earn both high school and college credit and are paid for by the school district.
Most of the courses are offered over the internet. This year, she also drove to Hawkeye to take three classes — one last semester and two this semester.
“I started taking Hawkeye classes my sophomore year in high school, and I’ve taken a total of 67 credits,” said Gergen, nearly all of them three-credit courses. She needed to complete at least 40 credits of general education classes and 22 credits of criminal justice classes to earn the degree.
A quirk in schedules resulted in Gergen going through the Hawkeye ceremony first. She is one of two Northeast Iowa seniors earning a degree at the college this spring. Megann Bohlken, 18, from Independence High School also will graduate Friday with an associate’s degree in liberal arts.
Janesville High School counselor Chad Angel said plenty of Gergen’s peers are taking Hawkeye classes. All sophomores visit Hawkeye for a college placement test to determine if they can enroll in concurrent courses.
“On the average, we probably have close to 40 college classes signed up,” he noted. There are 19 students in the senior class and a total grade nine to 12 enrollment of 100.
“I would say maybe the average of the kids that are taking college classes, they might complete as many as 24 credits,” he said, or about two per semester over two years. The option is pushed at Janesville because elective offerings are limited. Students can also take higher level classes at Waverly-Shell Rock High School, which a shuttle bus provides transportation to every period.
Across Hawkeye’s 10-county service area, there were 2,045 high school students taking 2,941 college credit classes of all types during spring semester. Along with the online option Janesville utilizes, classes taught by qualified instructors are offered at some schools or through the college’s outreach centers in Independence, Waverly and Grundy County.
Sophomores in Janesville’s talented and gifted program can take college classes. Other students generally can start taking the classes their junior year.
Gergen didn’t initially plan to earn a college degree in high school. She did, however, have the example of a Janesville senior who graduated at the end of her freshman year with a Hawkeye degree.
“I thought it was a cool idea, and then I saw it was possible,” she said.
A fondness for TV crime dramas played into the choice of a criminal justice degree. But, Gergen added, “I really got my interest from my dad.”
Her father, Chris Gergen, is an investigator with the Waterloo Police Department and has been an instructor in Hawkeye’s criminal justice program for the past three years. She has taken no classes from him.
Many of Gergen’s classes will transfer to Drake University, where she will play volleyball on a full-ride scholarship. Drake doesn’t have a criminal justice major. She will double major in psychology and sociology with a minor in biology.
“What I want to do with that is get into the law enforcement field and work kind of with a profiler status,” she said.
That goal was motivation for Gergen to pick up the pace after taking only four Hawkeye classes as a sophomore. The online course offerings were key.
Being on campus this year “was really new to me, so I was a little scared,” Gergen said.
“I definitely feel like I gained a lot of new skills and education,” she noted. “And I definitely feel it will help me when I move on to my university.”
“She’s pushed herself, she’s challenged herself to put herself in this position,” said Angel. “We’re just super proud of her.”