03/22/2014 12:54 EDT | Updated 05/22/2014 05:59 EDT

McMaster whiz kid, 15, reflects on first-year experience

Alex D’Souza has a 20-year-old friend he thinks of as old.

He also believes moving out from home and starting university at 14 isn’t so extraordinary, because he has friends back home who have been on their own since they were 10.

D’Souza made headlines last year after being accepted at age 14 to study chemical engineering at McMaster University.

He’s now 15, coming up to the end of his first year, so far nearly acing his courses and carrying an impressive 11.4 grade-point average out of a possible 12.

“Sometime the theory tends to get a little bit dry,” said D’Souza of his studies. He fancies himself a more practical student. He likes to play.

D’Souza doesn’t feel an age difference between himself and others in the university environment. For the most part he says everyone treats him like an equal and they don’t talk down to him.

“I felt that it was a good experience starting to be independent. Fourteen is not that young because I have friends who have been living on their own since they were 10,” D’Souza said.

Some people don’t believe him when he first tells them he is 15.

“My first reaction is to tell them that I am not lying and that I’m being honest, and my second reaction is to tell them, ‘Well if you don’t believe me, that’s fine. I’m OK with that.’”

He met most his friends during Welcome Week at McMaster. They’re all typically 18 and 19 years old. One of his friends is 20 and they joke back and forth about D’Souza being really young and his friend being really old.

“I was always younger than everyone else,” said D’Souza.

Journey to Mac

The D’Souzas, who have lived in Bahrain and India, first began visiting Canada in 2009. They came back west each summer until settling in Mississauga in 2011.

At 13, when Alex began high school in Canada, he was placed in the Grade 10, even though he had already completed a comparable stage of school in India.

Naturally, he went to his guidance counsellor to say he had already completed the material and wanted to be bumped up. He was then placed in Grade 11 classes for a week before going back to the guidance counsellor with the same request.

Finally, the counsellor told him he could sit in on Grade 12 classes, and said if he could cope with the material, he’d be allowed to stay.

“So, that’s what happened,” said D’Souza.

“I feel like I have always been able to cope with the responsibilities I have had to take up,” said D’Souza. “Usually it comes naturally. Every now and then, I need a bit of motivation and I need to refocus.”

Other interests

D’Souza doesn’t always have his nose in his books. He plays sports, and before starting at McMaster, played piano and guitar. He’s even organized a group of people to play in a soccer tournament last weekend — something his father was proud to hear.

“I focus on social life too. I feel like they can go hand in hand,” he said before telling the story of going “tray-bogganing” with his friends at a hill near Cootes Paradise.

“Essentially tray-bogganing is our version of tobogganing, but nobody actually brings a toboggan up to university, so we take the trays out of the cafeteria and we go down on those,” he explained.

Even at 15, D’Souza is mindful of the growing experience of post-secondary education and living away from home.

“It’s helped me kind of see that people have a whole range of different views and different opinions on a topic... It’s eye-opening to see how everyone’s minds work,” he said. “I’ve started to realize that I have a different mindset from everyone else. I’ve started to realize the way that I think.”

“I do try to organize my time. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s a bit too much to handle,” said D’Souza.

For Alex’s parents, it has always been that whatever makes their children happy, makes them happy. Alex’s sisters and parents have all led similarly accomplished lives. Alfredo, Alex’s father, started his Bachelor of Science degree at only 15 years old.

“One thing I learned at a very young age — it’s great to great and greater to be humble,” said Alfredo D’Souza, Alex’s father.

Neomi, Alex’s mother works in travel and tourism. With his family, the teen has gone on many cruises, visiting four continents.

The decision to leave India and move to Canada was a tough one that they thought about for many months. With internationally educated children, Alfredo says he knew his kids would not be totally comfortable going back to India.

Canada was on list of countries they considered moving to including Australia and the US. Alex was actually born in Florida.

'He's in good hands'

When it comes to Alex’s education Neomi said, “We didn’t want to push him. I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable or take on more than he can cope with. But he seems to be doing very well.”

They’re proud of Alex and maintain smiles the entire time they talk about his talents and successes. Alfredo refers to Alex as “Tiger,” a nickname he came up with hours after Alex was born.

“He’s in a good university, he’s in good hands, and they take care of him,” Alfredo is assured, so he and Neomi try not to worry too much for their youngest.

“He calls us almost three to four times a week which is good enough. Sometimes he calls almost every day, which I love.”

So what’s next for him? Well, he still has four years of his undergraduate degree to complete, but he says after that he would like to go into a seven-year biochemical engineering program in which graduates earn both a medical degree and a doctorate. 

If he’s successful, he will graduate at 26 years old with both credentials.

“I would feel like I have achieved something I would like to achieve.”