When Soleil Hawley walked into her first college class, a fellow student quipped: “I don’t mean to be rude, but have you ever been told you’re really short?”
“I’m 11,” she coolly replied.
And so began Soleil’s unusual higher education journey, one that sped through middle and high school via a combination of home schooling and online courses and plunged into college-level poetry, painting, and art history.
Now, at 18, when most students are just beginning college, the East Falls teen is nearly done. She’s on target to get her bachelor’s in fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania in December. Soleil, whose name is pronounced “Solay” and means “sun” in French, has been studying for the last three years in a joint program with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
At 16, Soleil was the youngest student to enroll in Penn’s B.F.A. offered through its College of Liberal and Professional Studies in at least the last decade, Penn officials said, and one of only three under age 18 that Penn officials could recall in the part-time B.A. program. (There have been others who entered through Penn’s regular full-time admissions, including Brittney Exline, who, at 15 in 2007, was the youngest African American female to be accepted to an Ivy League university.)
“Soleil is an amazing student and we are so pleased to have her here at Penn,” said Nora Lewis, vice dean of professional and liberal education.
But why so fast?
“I always felt pretty ready for it,” said the teen, whose straight blondish-brown hair falls to her waist. “There is so much more to accomplish once you realize there is so much more to education than the frameworks we have in place.”
Her journey illustrates an alternative path to America’s traditional education system, one in which a highly motivated, self-directed student can carve out her learning at a pace she wants and can handle.
It all started with an offhand half-joke from her mother. Soleil, then a sixth grader in public school in Oklahoma, was asking if she could enroll in a medley of extracurricular activities to satiate her desire for more knowledge.
“You should go to college if you’re going to spend that kind of money and time,” said her mother, Felicite Moorman, 45, who founded and heads a software platform company in East Falls.
Soleil latched onto that idea and took her first college class, a beginner’s drawing course at the University of Central Oklahoma.
“She was fabulous. She worked really hard, and in some ways she challenged some of the older students to work harder,” recalled Sarah Hearn, who taught the class.
When the family moved to Philadelphia, Moorman and her husband, Sean Hawley, began home-schooling Soleil and her two younger siblings. Soleil also began taking classes at Community College of Philadelphia, where at 12 she was one of the youngest to ever enroll. The first year, her mom sat outside the classroom door, just to be sure all went well. Many classes were art-focused but Soleil also took Japanese and English courses.
A CCP drawing instructor was skeptical at first, Moorman said.
“You know we do nudes,” he told her.
“I’m pretty sure she’s going to be OK with that,” Moorman assured him.
“Are you OK with it?” he asked her.
“Yeah, I am. She’s a very sophisticated 13-year-old,” responded Moorman, who has lived in 21 states and had her own unusual educational journey: She left home at 16 and put herself through college and law school.
Soon, Soleil eyed PAFA. But she was told she couldn’t get in without a high school diploma. Then 15, she enrolled at Penn Foster, a for-profit online school that offers an accelerated program, and worked eight hours a day for 80 days straight completing the requirements, her mother said.
Once at the academy, she relished the combination of academics and studio experience — classes in sculpture, drawing, landscaping, and painting.
With each new class, Soleil exhibited “more and more and more passion,” her mother said.
Her professors noticed.
“She’s very serious and far beyond her years,” said Al Gury, chair of the university’s painting department.
At Penn, she delved into art history and anthropology, and learned Ivy League rigor.
“I actually had no idea she was younger,” said Isabelle Lynch, a doctoral student and teaching assistant in Penn’s history of art department. “She had this nice ability to talk about work in a really kind of fresh way.”
Not all lessons were academic. At the community college, Soleil’s eyes were opened to a diverse group of learners, some of whom didn’t have the same advantages she’d had and worked exceptionally hard to afford college.
Soleil paid for her courses via scholarships, help from her parents, and about $25,000 in student loans. She also sold some of her art; her biggest sale fetched a few hundred dollars.
Next up, she plans to vie for a Rhodes Scholarship, a prestigious post-graduate award that allows recipients to study for free at Oxford University in England. She also envisions law school and a career as an intellectual property lawyer, with a focus on colonial looting and the repatriation of art.
Soleil plans to continue painting, too. She’s also a ballet dancer, writes poetry, sings, and plays the violin. She loves to intertwine mediums — write a poem about a painting, or paint off a poem. Her work is often inspired by dreams; she keeps a dream journal at her bedside.
“In the same way dreams can reveal things you didn’t know about yourself, painting can do that, too,” she said.
Other work is inspired by city scenes. She snaps pictures and later paints them.
Her work was recently on display at the academy’s gallery as part of a student artist exhibit. She was the youngest featured. One was a self-portrait of her head, sideways and atop the roof over a train platform. Others depicted a burning house on frozen tundra and a ballet dancer in scuba flippers.
“I’m using juxtaposing elements to create a sense of unease, maybe, or some dissonance," she said.
Soleil makes time for fun, too. She and her friends visit museums and paint each other, but they also see movies and go to the mall. One of her friends, a singer-songwriter, will leave for New York University in the fall.
“It’s difficult to see her departing, but it’s also exciting to see people go on their own creative journeys," she said.
She’s glad she chose the path she did.
“These communities have been so critical in my development as a person and as an artist,” she said. “I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”