By Mallory Schlabach, Editor in Chief
Just by looking at her, no one would know she is only 17 years old.
Her teeth show no signs of braces nor has acne pocked her face like the other high school juniors her age. Except Haley Dilling is not in high school anymore.
A year ago, Haley began to decide which college to attend in the fall. She was 16. Thinking before she says anything, she quietly explains how she ended up thousands of miles from her Florida home a few months after her sweet sixteenth birthday.
As the youngest and a top student in her graduating class at Vero Beach High School, Haley could have chosen nearly any college to attend. But the school she chose had to meet strict criteria. She wanted to attend a Christian university in the southern part of the United States for her own personal preference, and one with excellent art, business and music programs.
“For a short answer, it was God and the Internet that brought me here,” Haley said.
When it came down to choosing, ACU and Oral Roberts University were her top choices. Having never heard of the West Texas university before, Haley and her mom left Florida and traveled to Abilene to see what ACU was like.
“After visiting ACU, I loved the people and the atmosphere,” she said. “I saw the professors were serious about seeing their students grow not only academically but spiritually as well.”
In fall 2005, Haley began ACU as a freshman majoring in marketing and art, and pursued music also. A year later, she’s still glad she chose ACU.
When Haley was three, her mom, Trudy Dilling, wanted her tested to see if she could begin preschool early. She was already reading Dr. Seuss books to herself and could add and subtract.
To pass the test Haley had to correctly answer questions about the color of every day objects by pointing to a brightly painted, wooden block.
After correctly answering what colors the grass and sun were, she began to get restless, Trudy recalled. Haley answered the instructor in complete sentences instead of just pointing to the blocks, and begged her mom to take her home with her eyes.
“Haley, what color is the sky?” the instructor asked. “The sky is yellow,” she quickly answered.
The instructor glanced at her mom standing behind her, who then shot a confused look at Haley.
“Oh, mom. I’m just kidding,” Haley said rolling her eyes. “Of course the sky is blue.”
A few months later Haley began preschool.
“That incident before preschool explains Haley. She’s fun and silly, but serious and intelligent, too,” Trudy said.
Haley said by first grade, she was already enrolled in the gifted program, but her teachers noticed she wasn’t working very hard.
After she spent every day reading in second grade, her mom went to the school board.
“Haley was reading book after book in second grade because she was already done with all her schoolwork,” Trudy said. “She was quiet and didn’t bother anyone, so her teacher let her read at her desk instead of giving her meaningless busy work.”
Trudy had a background in special education and knew her daughter could easily move up a year.
“I had to do something; third grade would not be enough for her,” Trudy said.
Because Haley was testing off the charts on her achievement tests, she skipped third grade and entered fourth grade with a new set of classmates. But only after spending the summer doing homework.
“I wasn’t excited about doing homework during the summer, but I spent most of my days learning my multiplication tables and learning how to write in cursive so I could start fourth grade that fall and be caught up,” Haley said.
The rest of elementary and middle school passed in a blur for Haley, who excelled at everything she did, often to the dismay of her female classmates, her mom said.
“I was ornery and more talkative growing up,” Haley said. “I loved to be outside and to play sports, my best friends ended up being the boys.”
Growing up, Haley was taught to be a leader, to think for herself and to trust in God.
“We didn’t do the whole baby talk thing with our children,” Trudy said. “We talked to them like a part of the family and asked for their input when making decisions. We taught them to be as positive as possible and to know that our faith shapes us.”
A middle child with an older sister and two younger siblings, Haley grew up feeling like the oldest child, she said.
Her sister Hillary, who was almost five years older, was born with Down syndrome.
“Growing up with an older sister with Down syndrome, at a young age I took on the responsibility of looking after her like I was the older sister,” Haley said. “I recognized that Hillary was not as intellectually or physically capable as most people, and I helped her and watched out for her as much as possible.”
Hillary would sit on her mom’s lap and Haley at her mom’s feet when Trudy began story time for the two young girls. Haley soaked in the words and committed the stories to memory. She gives her sister Hillary credit for helping her learn to read so quickly, and for molding her into who she is today.
“Sometimes her stubbornness frustrated me, and we sometimes had ill-natured wrestling matches, but I loved her,” Haley said. “The trying times taught me patience. Her needs developed a compassion for others in me, and a desire to do everything in my power to help and love them. Her joy and loving nature toward people taught me something about caring for people and overcoming my personal inhibitions towards others.”
When Haley was 10 years old, Hillary was killed when she was struck by a truck, outside the front of the church on a bright Sunday morning. She was life-flighted to a nearby hospital with her parents where she later died.
“On the way, her eyes kept roving around _” a sign of brain damage,” Haley said. “Tests at the hospital revealed no brain damage whatsoever. My family believes Hillary was seeing angels. While we waited, I prayed with complete faith, trust, and peace that God would completely heal Hillary.
“He did. When I heard she had gone home, I had absolute peace knowing that her life in Heaven was infinitely better than the most joyous experiences here on Earth. Sure, I still miss her, but I’ll see her again after a while.”
Those who know Haley say her peace is what defines her. Her mom says her sister’s death contributed to her peace, but that her relationship with Christ solidifies it.
“Haley is probably the one person in life who I think is what Jesus had in mind when he talks about God abiding in us,” Trudy said. “In some ways her faith is stronger than mine. She’s the closest person I know to being like Jesus.”
Haley spent the first 14 years of her life in the rural Pennsylvania town of Altoona, located in the heart of Pennsylvania in the Allegheny mountain range. The summer before her junior year, her family moved to Vero Beach, Fla., for the warmer climate, church family and advanced courses Haley could take at the larger public high school.
By her sophomore year, Haley had already taken almost every upper level course needed to graduate in Pennsylvania. Trudy said she and her husband didn’t want Haley to graduate at age 14 and head to college, so they began to look for other alternatives.
Trudy said the family had spent the previous three summers living in Florida at their summer home, so everyone had made friends; the family had found a church and was ready to leave Pennsylvania’s bitter winters behind.
Haley’s father is a family physician and her mother works with him from home, so he could relocate his practice to another state, which made the move easier.
Once the family moved and Haley was settled in Florida, she left behind her small high school with a graduating class of 80 and began in a class that would graduate more than 600 students.
In both schools, Haley faced questions regarding her two-year age difference from her classmates. Luckily, she was blessed not only with brains but with height too, Trudy said of her five-foot-eight daughter.
Haley said students either didn’t realize she was younger or they would ask her in taunting voices, “Ooh, are you smart or something?”
She said these comments often saddened her and left her feeling angry.
“That always made me uncomfortable,” she said. “I didn’t ever have a good answer. I wanted to be modest about my intelligence and at the same time, I didn’t want people to know I was younger.”
She said it was a hard time in her life trying to deal with being younger than everyone else.
“I really struggled in knowing how to react and how to give God the glory for the talents he’s given me,” she said.
She decided to use her talents to get involved at her new high school.
She joined the drama team, took up dance, sang in the chorus, played in the band, and traveled with the Brain Bowl team, an academic challenge team.
“The move to Florida was the best thing we could have done for Haley,” her mom said. “She wasn’t developing study habits at her high school in Pennsylvania nor was it challenging her.
Despite being two years younger, Haley was taking classes two years above the grade she was in and still not satisfied. I never saw her finally have to work for her grades until we moved. It prepared her for college.”
A new chapter
Today, Haley said she has found peace in her life with her age difference.
“Despite the responsibilities and everything going on,” she said, “I take time to rest in the Lord and spend time with my heavenly father everyday. My main mission in life is not to succeed academically or financially but to spread the good news and bring people into the life and love of the Lord.”
Although she said she feels the age gap is closing now that she is at college, she actually feels much younger than other students sometimes.
“I look around and see all these people who look so much older,” she said, as she smoothed her blond ringlets back into the ponytail at the nape of her neck.
“So many people are engaged and planning to get married. I’m nowhere close to that right now.”
ACU is different for her because people don’t care if she’s younger. She said people of all ages are at college so it makes it easier. Only one person has called her a baby here, she said.
Most people just think it’s neat that she is younger than most sophomores.
“If I don’t tell them, they’d never guess I was younger, and most don’t,” she said.
“I’ve progressed with my classmates throughout the years academically and socially. Right now the only difference would be that physically and legally I am still behind my peers.”
Jenny Robinson, one of Haley’s friends, only recently learned Haley was younger than her.
“I never would have guessed Haley was younger than me,” said Robinson, junior special education major from Overland Park, Kan. “In fact, she always seemed older to me. She has a lot of maturity and wisdom for her age.”
Robinson met Haley last fall while in an Honors Humanities class.
“I noticed right away that she was an extremely hard worker; she works harder than anyone I’ve ever met,” Robinson said. “Yet at the same time, she knows what is important in life and has her priorities right.”
Her friends aren’t the only ones that notice a difference.
Dr. Tracy Shilcutt, associate professor of history and Haley’s U-100 class professor said Haley was enthusiastic beginning college like most freshmen who begin, but that she had a different path than most.
“Haley had a determined path that she wanted to follow that was not just an academic path but a holistic journey that integrated her school with her love for God,” Shilcutt said in an e-mail.
Dr. Monty Lynn noticed her drive too.
Lynn, her Intro to Business and Technology professor during her first semester at college, said Haley was a person of purpose.
“Obviously, she is very bright,” he said. “She had diverse interests and her faith is evident, for it shines through her work. She’s mentioned she wants to be a Christian influence in the business world, so I’m anxious to see how her interests play out.”
Haley said her dream would be to begin a Christian online advertising business once she finishes school. But then again, she also has her two other interests to consider: art and music. By the time she is 22, she will be ready to enter the work force with college and graduate school already finished, she said.
“Who knows how she’ll meld her interests together, but you know she’s not just wandering through life here. She has a purpose and a plan,” Lynn said. “You can just assume she’s like one of the rest, just an all around good scholar.”
She doesn’t appear younger than anyone, he said, and her 4.0 GPA doesn’t reflect that of a 17-year-old in college either. She’s not the only young student to begin at ACU. Since 2002, six students between ages 15 to 16 started at ACU, said Lisa McCarty, assistant director of the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment on campus.
Attending on a full-tuition National Merit scholarship, Haley does what she needs to and does her best. Although it’s weird to think about it, Haley said, she probably is considered a genius because of test scores. She hasn’t formally taken an IQ test, but she made a 1530 on her SAT, which according to the Collegeboard Web site placed her in the 99.7 percentile of students who took the test that year. Only one in 300,000 students make her score in any given year.
Being labeled as a genius doesn’t define who Haley is though. After class, work, church and homework, Haley finds time to hang out with her friends in Barret Hall, or to spend time along studying or reading a book with a cup of coffee in hand.
“I’m normal, just like other college students,” she said.