Commencement Feature: Annika Mote is the youngest-ever graduate at 17

Annika Mote

In many ways, Annika Mote was your typical 12-year-old girl. She enjoyed ice skating, hated math and had a full set of braces. 

She was also, however, enrolled in her first semester of college – with her mom dropping her off for classes every day. 

“There’s just no way around it,” she laughed. “I was 12. I looked awkward. I was awkward. I didn’t know how to talk to people. I took three classes my first semester and it was harder then, because everyone knew I was young. Now, in my last semester, it’s easier because given the context people assume I’m older.”  

Annika started her higher education journey at Pikes Peak State College (PPSC) studying biochemistry. After completing that program (and, in the same year, her high school education), she enrolled at UCCS. 

“I couldn’t move out of state, obviously, and I didn’t want to go to a big school because I was scared,” she explained about the decision to start out at PPSC. “It was going to be a huge transition no matter what.”  

After PPSC, UCCS was the natural next move.  

“It’s a bigger campus with more resources, but it’s not out of state and it’s not overwhelmingly big,” she said. “It’s a good middle ground for what I needed.” 

Despite having grown up with an intense dislike of math, she chose to major in Applied Mathematics at the encouragement of an instructor.  

“I hated math most of my life – really, genuinely hated it,” Annika said, describing the typical scene of a kid crying at a kitchen table struggling with their homework. “I took a Calculus class and I felt like a fish out of water. I got a 56% on my first exam and was like great, this is when I drop out of college.”  

Although she may have had a rough start, Annika’s math instructor saw her potential and convinced her to change her major, and Annika ended the semester with an A in the class.  

“For the first time, math clicked and made sense,” she said. “I was excited to do my homework because I understood what was going on. It felt more like a fun challenge.” 

Even after she had made up her mind to pursue math, Annika put off officially changing her major for a while.  

“I felt silly, after hating math my entire life, to be like, ‘actually…,’” she laughed. “My parents were so deeply confused, but very supportive.” 

“Deeply confused, but supportive” might be the best way to describe her parents’ attitude for most of Annika’s childhood. 

Annika’s mother always thought she was, in Annika’s words, “weird.”  

“For the first couple years of my life, I think my parents actually thought I was dumb,” she laughed. “I had no natural instincts. Multiple times in the first years of my life, I had two black eyes because I would fall without protecting my face.”  

“My language skills did develop pretty early,” she admitted. “I was speaking full sentences before I was one and asked to start learning to read around age two. I was never developmentally normal in anything – I was either ahead or behind.” 

Eventually, Annika’s pediatrician put things together and told her parents she was gifted.  

When she was in elementary school, Annika and her parents made the choice to homeschool. Although she was only in fifth grade at the time, she took the standardized tests for homeschooling and scored at a ninth-grade level.  

“We started off with the ninth-grade material, and they thought it might take me longer to complete the curriculum, but I was self-paced and it just kind of went from there,” Annika said. 

But, after completing high school so quickly, Annika described college as a rude awakening.  

“When I got to college, I didn’t know how to study – I had never had to,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I suddenly wasn’t getting As in everything.”  

Annika taught herself how to study, something she considers one of her greatest academic accomplishments, along with the way she turned her attitude toward math around.  

“Of course, I still procrastinate like every other college student,” she laughed. “But my younger self would be most proud of my grades in math. It was a totally foreign concept to me at that time, that I could be good at math. And not only good, but even enjoy it.”  

During her college career, Annika pointed to the support of UCCS faculty and her mentors as things that helped her make it through. 

“I’ve had a lot of really good professors that pushed me when I needed it,” she said.  

Given the opportunity, Annika would do it all again. 

“Of all the choices I had, going to college was the one that had the best shot of turning me into a well-adjusted adult,” she said. 

Annika Mote stands in front of the UCCS library clock tower.

After graduation, Annika will be taking a gap year – something most 18-year-olds are doing after high school, not college. Then, she has her sights set on a graduate degree, something she plans on pursuing out of state.  

She’ll also be getting her driver’s license, which she put off this long simply because it didn’t make sense to her to pay for one semester of parking. 

Even after all of the literal lessons learned during her five-year college career, Annika’s main insight still came from within. She’s learned to embrace her age as an asset, rather than something she should try to hide. 

“I used to try really hard to pretend to be an adult, to pretend to relate to things I couldn’t, and that never did me any favors,” she said. “I’m a feminine teenage girl, which you don’t see a lot in the field of mathematics. People tend to expect a lot less of me, then are surprised when they learn I do know what I’m talking about. But I’ve learned that I can be a bubbly 17-year-old girl and still do what I need to do.”  

That’s her life advice for anyone – be who you are. 

“Being judged used to feel like the end of the world, the worst thing that could possibly happen, but it’s not that big a deal,” she said. “Some people aren’t going to like you no matter what, and that’s fine – at least you can always walk away knowing exactly who you are.”