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Some college students still haven’t picked their majors by age 20. Others, like Eastern Kentucky University student Tristan Colpitts, have graduated Summa Cum Laude from one of the hardest STEM programs on campus.

At just 20 years old, Colpitts was among the youngest graduates to walk across the stage at EKU’s May 11 commencement — and the most lauded. Thousands of visitors looked on as she was awarded her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and recognized for both a perfect 4.0 GPA and her participation in EKU’s nationally prominent Honors program.

In her last semester, she earned the EKU Department of Chemistry’s Darnell T. Salyer Award, which is given to to the top student in the graduating class. Her name will hang on a plaque in the new Science Building for years to come.

All that recognition and achievement might not have occurred at EKU if not for want of a T-shirt.

After narrowing down her college choices to the 15 or so schools that offer accredited forensic science programs, she began weighing the options and praying for guidance. Finally, she came to a conclusion: “Wherever they give me a free T-shirt, that’s where I’m going to go. EKU was the only one to give me a free T-shirt. So I’m in Kentucky.”

“I’m very bad with decisions,” she said, laughing.

Colpitts’ high school years were anything but traditional. As a military child, she moved with her family every three years or so. In high school, she attended Collegiate High School in Niceville, Florida, near the base where her father — an engineer in the U.S. Air Force — was stationed at the time.

The public charter school provides an opportunity for the brightest high school sophomores, juniors and seniors to take college courses. By the time she graduated, she had earned not only a high school diploma but an associate’s degree in general science, as well.

She studied science to help her on the path to becoming a medical examiner, a career she’d planned to pursue since middle school. However, when she arrived at EKU, she discovered a truth that surprises many college students — her dream job wasn’t actually a good fit.

“One of my grandfathers was a detective, and the other was a doctor, so I thought, ‘I should put that together,’” she said. “Ever since sixth or seventh grade, I wanted to be a medical examiner.  And then I came to college and I was like, ‘I’m not doing that.’”

She switched to chemistry and found a suitable calling studying the substances that make up the universe. She became interested in laboratory science, pursuing two semesters of research, including one semester studying nanoparticles.

Currently, she is searching for laboratory jobs and is interested in a career in quality testing and analysis, hoping to one day run her own lab. She’s more than prepared academically, but she credits EKU for helping her with her job readiness skills, as well. Searching for careers at age 20 can be nerve-wracking.

“With EKU’s help of career resources, they’ve been really giving me confidence,” she said.

While a T-shirt brought her to Kentucky, the friendliness of the Richmond and EKU communities has convinced her to stay — at least for the foreseeable future. Both she and her boyfriend are job searching while he takes a gap year before medical school, she said.

Additionally, she has found strength and community at her place of worship, GracePoint Church in Richmond, where she is learning to play bass guitar and is a member of the worship team. Her Christian faith is a major driving force in her life, including her desire to excel in college.

“Working so hard in school was not just to get those good grades. I'm doing the best I can so that I can glorify Him, to make sure I'm using the gifts that He's given me,” Colpitts said. “My parents always said He gave you a brain for a reason, so use it.”

While Colpitts got in and out at EKU quicker than most, she could have graduated even sooner, but she decided not to rush. She even made time to retake Chemistry II, which was the only class she’d gotten a B in during high school.

“That would have been a little too crazy, graduating at 19,” she said.