Each Tuesday and Thursday, freshman Andrew Ferris and his older brother, freshman Zach Ferris, sit down for lunch in between classes. Andrew orders the same sandwich every time — turkey and provolone with black olives, lettuce, tomatoes and mushrooms, and then washes it down with an energy drink.
On the contrary, Zach always keeps it simple, ordering a hot dog with no condiments or a grilled cheese.
Differences in taste buds aside, these brothers differ in a variety of ways. Zach struggles with algebra, and Andrew isn’t the world’s best speller. Zach tries not to drink too much caffeine; Andrew can’t get enough. Andrew excels at just about any sport he tries; Zach, not so much.
But one thing these brothers share, beyond genetics, is their accelerated academic performance. Zach came to Knox College in the fall as a 17-year-old freshman, what many would consider an impressive achievement. But shortly after, at the beginning of Spring Term, his brother became the college’s youngest student to have ever attended at just 14 years old — an age difference that has created challenges for Andrew and his family.
Just a few weeks into the semester, Andrew has experienced obstacles that are typical to many incoming freshman — forgetting where his classrooms are and forgetting to turn in assignments. But with some help from his older brother, he’s beginning to adjust to college life. Andrew enjoys his classes and is enthusiastic to have received his first grade, a “check plus.”
With classmates, his age difference hasn’t posed a problem; in fact, few people seem to even notice that he’s so young.
“We were workshopping for ideas in my Intro to Nonfiction class and my classmate said, ‘We should write about that 14-year-old who goes to Knox,'” Andrew recalled. “I’m not sure if he was being sarcastic.”
Although Andrew is adjusting socially and academically, he faces more practical obstacles at Knox.
While Zach lives on campus and even recently pledged with a fraternity, Andrew’s age prevents him from living in student housing. Therefore, their mother drives back and forth from Peoria twice a week to ensure that Andrew can attend classes.
It won’t be until just before Andrew’s senior year at Knox that he will be permitted to live on campus. While he plans to make the eventual move to campus, he remains indifferent toward this rule.
“I don’t know what I’m missing,” Andrew explained. “I’ve never lived in a dorm.”
Andrew’s age also prevents him from working on campus. Since the age of 10, Andrew has been making his own short films and documentaries, covering various subjects. When his brother Zach came to campus, he was hired on as a student worker, filming content for the athletic department.
Andrew expressed interest in filming for the Athletic Department himself, and the family urged the college’s Sports Information Director Mike Perry to take a look at samples of his work posted on YouTube.
“The videos were high quality, revealing his advanced technical skills, and strikingly complex for a 14-year-old,” Perry said. “None of the videos I viewed were related to athletics, but I was so intrigued by what he would do with football video that I had to let him try.”
Although Perry reports that “Andrew did a tremendous job with the football videos,” until he is 16 years old, Andrew will be unable to acquire the work permit necessary for employment. In the meantime, Andrew says that he is happy to volunteer for the Athletic Department.
Still, the added income might be helpful. Andrew and Zach’s mother, Barbara Ferris-McCone, admits that the family has struggled financially over the years. Currently, Barbara supports the family with her income as a seamstress at Country Bridal.
“Andrew and Zach once emptied out their bank accounts to help put food on the table and never asked for a penny back,” Ferris-McCone recalls.
Despite critics, Ferris-McCone decided to homeschool Andrew and Zach at ages four and seven when she realized that they weren’t being challenged enough in the standard classroom setting.
“We decided we wanted more science and wanted more foreign language,” Barbara explained.
The brothers look back on their homeschooling as a positive experience.
“It’s about taking charge of your education … it allowed us to go at our own pace,” Zach said.
He added that the flexibility of a homeschool routine made it possible for him and his brother to take part in more extracurricular activities than a rigid schedule would have permitted.
In fact, when she’s not working to put food on the table, Ferris-McCone is doing what she calls “playing chauffeur” for her two sons, a gig she’s had practically since the boys were able to walk. They have always been active, playing piano, golfing, taking swimming lessons and entering spelling bees.
While his older brother plans to declare his major in political science and continue on to law school, Andrew intends to major in physics and environmental science, subjects that he has had an interest in since he was six years old.
Museum Learning Coordinator at the Peoria Riverfront Museum Nick Rae remembers the first day that he met Andrew.
“When he was six years old he took my space class at the museum … I was doing a general overview and said something like 70 percent of the Earth is covered with water and he corrected me with an exact percentage,” Rae recalled.
Although he admits that he is shocked to know someone so young attending college, Rae points out that Andrew has always been more precocious than most other students who take his classes.