Smarts to spare

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Emily Flower's cheeks must hurt. The Ohio State senior hasn't stopped smiling over the past hour, regardless of the subject: Her passion for social change. Her love of hearing others' stories. Her dislike of calculus.

Even the car accident that left her with damaged nerves in both legs, cutting her swimming career short at 14, keeps her grinning. Of course she cried over losing her identity as an athlete, she says. To this day, she can only stand for four hours at a time (although she can bike all she wants). But she finishes her story, smiling wide, saying, "A lot of good came out of that accident."

Namely, it prompted her to log more than 450 volunteer hours at Nationwide Children's Hospital through high school and participate in a summer program there with other local gifted students. It was then when she first found real peers, and discovered that others her age were just as driven and passionate as she-a revelation she calls a blessing.

Now, the girl who grew up homeschooled on the city's East Side and enrolled in college two years ago is already graduating-at 19. But forget stereotypes, because this new-age Doogie Howser breaks every one. Unlike the famous TV super teen, Flower has decided not to take the medical path (although she started out that way), but to focus on what she says she does best (talking) and what she's passionate about (helping others).

In June, she'll graduate with a bachelor's degree in public affairs, specializing in nonprofit management. "(It's a) program where I can be passionate about the things I am really passionate about: development, human issues, poverty in America, inequality," she says." And where I could do a lot of talking."

Her gift to communicate caught the attention of local entrepreneur Joe DeLoss last spring, who hired Flower as a business operations intern at his nonprofit Freshbox Catering, which provides transitional skills to residents of faith mission groups.

"I was immediately impressed with Emily," DeLoss recalls. "She has a really unbelievable character. She's driven by a much bigger picture than hourly wage."

At Freshbox, Flower did a little of everything, from coordinating kitchen employees to generating a point of sale system. Eventually, Flower took a position as a business manager and analyst at DeLoss's new community and business development nonprofit, Nobul Co.

Flower's charitable quality is something the parents of the bubbly brunette have always seen, along with her ability to take charge with confidence. From the time she was a toddler, says Flower's mother, Loraine, the girl was able to get others to follow her lead-and always in a good way.

"She's very driven," adds her father, Victor. "She doesn't just want (the needy) to be given something. She wants to change things so that they succeed. She has a different vision and different outlook than other people have."

How she's going to inspire that change after graduation, Flower isn't quite sure. But there's one thing she knows: it's time for something new. While she loves Columbus, she hopes to head to a bigger city, such as New York City or Chicago and get a job before starting on a master's degree.

"I haven't learned the crucial skill to say no, or learned how to take a Sunday off and just go to the park and read," she says. "I've loved living in Columbus, but I need something new in my life. I need to shake it up a bit."

How Long

Flower, who otherwise would have attended Columbus Public Schools on the near East Side, was homeschooled by her mother through fifth grade and then attended an online virtual school. At 15, she began taking classes at Columbus State as part of a post-secondary education option. She arrived at Ohio State with 65 credits (making her a sophomore), and continued to take 20 credits every quarter (a full load is 12 to 15).

Interactive Learning

At home, if they were studying art, they went to a museum. If they were studying the judicial system, they went to the courthouse and sat in on a trial. They took trips. The idea was to show there is always something to learn. Every night at dinner, her parents would ask, "What did you learn today?"

On Graduating Early

"I wanted to finish earlier because I'd rather be doing than learning about doing," Flower says. "I hate school. It's not the learning that I hate, it's the structure of learning that I hate."