She mostly hid her age at U of T. Now this 18-year-old has a master's degree

Isabel Jewell, 18, graduated with a master's degree from the University of Toronto this week. (Submitted by Mena Jewell - image credit)
Isabel Jewell, 18, graduated with a master's degree from the University of Toronto this week. (Submitted by Mena Jewell - image credit)

When most girls approach their 18th birthdays, they may have an upcoming high school graduation on their minds, but Isabel Jewell was anticipating a very different ceremony — her master's convocation.

Jewell and her older sister Sophia both graduated this week with master's degrees in Slavic languages and literatures from the University of Toronto. It was the culmination of a journey that started with undergraduate degrees at the University of Alberta when they were just 12 and 14 years old.

The sisters hid their age from most classmates and professors, but spoke to CBC Toronto this week.

"In a way, it didn't really make a difference to me because I was just doing it with my sister and we were together the whole time," said Isabel Jewel, who just turned 18.

"But when we would tell classmates, they found it really, really weird. They were kind of shocked. So we stopped telling people."

Sophia Jewell began the adventure for the pair.

Submitted by: Mena Jewell
Submitted by: Mena Jewell

"Initially, it was just because of the languages. I really wanted to learn languages, but our family doesn't speak Polish, doesn't speak Ukrainian, so I thought oh we could maybe take them at university," she said.

Sophia, who had been home-schooled up to that point, was able to register in a language course at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where the family lived.

As soon as she started, she loved it, bringing her enthusiasm home to her family, especially Isabel.

"I was part way through my first course, and then one night, we were sitting up late talking about what it was like and I said, 'Hey I have this crazy idea,'" Sophia recalled.

'"What if I teach you everything about my first course and you can join me in the second half of the language course?'" she said to her younger sister.

It's 'astounding' that sisters are so young, professor says

Her mom, Mena Jewell, who home-schooled her girls, says Sophia was getting top marks, "but the main thing was she was really happy."

And when Sophia came up with the idea to bring Isabel to school with her, Mena says she gave it her blessing.

Soon after, both girls were pursuing an undergraduate degree in modern languages and cultural studies.

Paul Borkwood/CBC
Paul Borkwood/CBC

The professor who taught their Russian Thinkers course at U of T, Allan Smith, says he thought they might have been a little bit younger than the majority of his students. He was shocked when CBC Toronto told him how much younger the sisters really are.

"It is astounding, honestly, that they were still teenagers," he said, laughing. He notes that they both wrote interesting papers and made meaningful contributions in class.

Both Isabel and Sophia say they are taking their time to figure out what they would like to pursue next.

Isabel says people sometimes assume she and her sisters must both be geniuses. But she doesn't necessarily think that's how they have achieved their success.

"It's not this idea of being a prodigy or something like that, but being willing to do the hard work, invest yourself in that and learning to work together," she said.

The university could not confirm if Isabel is its youngest ever master's graduate.

But record or not, her success has provided some inspiration.

Rosalina Jewell, 14, said, "Yeah, probably," when CBC News asked her if she'll follow in her older sisters' academic footsteps.