Brian holding his diploma and flowers in his cap and gown

Brian Tan, now 18, is a PhD student and research assistant at CSU.

Brian Tan knew he wanted to go into a STEM-related field ever since he was a kid growing up in Indonesia. What he most certainly could not have known was that he would go on to become the youngest graduate ever from CU’s computer science program.

His dad had gone to school for engineering and had raised Brian and his brother to be “engineering oriented.”

“If something broke in our house, he would take the time to teach us how to fix it,” Brian recalls. “It’s really cool to understand how things work.”

A Love of Math and Computers

He also remembers loving math from a very young age. “I learned some basic algebra when I was six or seven years old and I found it very exciting to learn about.”

At school, once Brian had learned all the things he was supposed to know for his age, he always wanted more. “I asked my teacher, as a joke, to try something way too far ahead for me—but we were both surprised that I was able to do it.”

So not surprisingly, when he first started thinking about college, Brian figured he would major in math. “But then I started exploring programming and computer science and realized I like it even more.”

Coming to America

He had always wanted to come to the US for college, so when his older brother ended up in Colorado, Brian joined him here. He was only 16 at the time.

They rented an apartment near FRCC’s Boulder County campus, but his first semester classes were all 30 miles away at the Larimer Campus in Fort Collins—and he didn’t have a car. “I got on the bus at 8:00 a.m. to get to class by 11:00,” he remembers.

In Indonesia, Brian had gone to an international school where he studied English from a young age. But when he arrived in Colorado, he was not terribly confident in his verbal skills.

“After two years in the US, I feel like my verbal skills have improved very much.” (Editor’s note: His English is fantastic.)

Starting at FRCC

Brian’s first day at FRCC!

His brother was studying at the University of Colorado Boulder, but Brian didn’t think he could go directly to a four-year college because of his test scores. (Remember, he was only 16 and not studying in his first language.) “It would have been insanely hard for me to get into a university.”

So he started at FRCC in the fall of 2021. Being an international student presented its own challenges, but he found support at the college.

Making Friends and Challenging Himself

“One of the challenges I had to face was making friends. Back home, all I ever knew were Asian people—from China, Korea, all over Southeast Asia. I had no friends from western countries.”

At FRCC he had to push himself out of his comfort zone. “It was very awkward for me to do so, but I started making friends. It definitely improved my social skills.”

And that wasn’t the only way that Front Range challenged Brian.

“It was different than my international high school. FRCC really prepared me for US college standards.”

Some Helpful Guidance

Advising office at Larimer Campus

Brian says his FRCC academic advisor John Finney was also extremely helpful. “He explained to me all the procedures I had to follow to get the credits I needed. He also helped with the legal documents—visas and forms.”

“When we first met,” John recalls, “Brian was very involved in his educational process. But he was still a little shy—he wasn’t used to advocating for himself at age 16.”

Brian appreciated that his advisor recognized he was on an accelerated schedule. “John showed me how I could take CLEP placement exams for classes where I already knew the material—so I didn’t have to spend time and money on that class.”

“Without John’s help as my advisor, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Brian says.

As the two got to know each other and established a stronger connection, John has enjoyed watching Brian mature and grow. “He’s gotten a lot more comfortable with who he is as a person and as a student.”

An Accelerated Plan

Brian knew he wanted to transfer into a four-year engineering program, so he reached out to John for guidance. John remembers that his advisee already had a very detailed plan of what he wanted to do at Front Range.

“I was incredibly impressed with Brian’s self-awareness at such a young age,” John says. “He knew who he was, what he wanted to do and why.”

Eager to complete an associate degree and transfer to a university, Brian took eight classes in the spring of 2022. (A full-time student usually takes around four.)

As an academic advisor, John had no reservations about Brian’s ability to take such a heavy load—he felt certain that Brian’s work ethic would not be an issue. “We just talked about closely monitoring how he was doing in his classes, and being realistic about what he might need to drop. But that never became an issue for him.”

“I never felt like he was being pushed into a certain area of study,” John says. “Brian had found that path for himself. To have such a clear idea of how he wanted to impact the world at that age was very impressive.”

Staying on Track

John helped make sure that Brian was keeping his options open, since he didn’t yet know which four-year university he was going to transfer to. “I also suggested he change a few things around in his schedule, just the order in which to take classes.”

John knew that certain classes were offered in the summer and others weren’t—so together, they made sure he could get in all the courses he needed. They also discussed how to stay afloat with such a heavy course load.

“I said, ‘You have 168 hours in the week, so start subtracting for sleep, the amount of time you’ll spend in class, on homework. Whatever’s left, that’s your time to be a human.’ Brian was very conscious of that. He’s a very thoughtful person.”

Preparing to Transfer

Because Brian wanted to transfer to a four-year engineering program, John’s role was to make sure everything would go smoothly. “Brian laid out a very clear plan to be at FRCC for about a year, then transfer to CU.”

Brian took the maximum number of credits he could at FRCC—and he admits that his schedule was “rough.” But with classes in both STEM and humanities subjects, he liked that the coursework had a lot of interesting variety.

By May of 2022, he had earned an Associate of Science degree. He transferred to CU Boulder that summer.

Off to the University

“When I first transferred to CU, I made the mistake of taking the hardest computer science classes right away,” Brian recalls. “I did struggle a lot. As much as Front Range had taught me, the material was just very hard.”

He was also shocked by how heavily weighted final exams were in some of his classes—in some cases accounting for 30% of his grade for the course. Those initial semesters were a lot of work, but in the end, he earned As and Bs in those tough classes.

“If I had gone to CU without going to FRCC first, I would not have survived,” he says.

Graduating Early

Brian originally planned to take the typical length of time to complete his bachelor’s degree, but he discovered ways to adjust the plan along the way.

“When I made my study plans, I kept finding ways to shorten the timeline,” he says. “I’m not driven in a blind way, but often the plan gets better as I go along.” 

“It’s always surprising to see someone at such a young age who’s that driven and focused,” says John Finney. “But it doesn’t feel like Brian hasn’t enjoyed the process.”

A Love of Learning

“It’s not all about achievement for him—he’s not just checking things off his list. He’s driven by his love of learning.”

Brian’s passion for his subject matter was apparent in his class schedule at CU. On average, he took six classes per semester.  

He has now earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and math. He was the youngest graduate ever from CU’s computer science department—he turned 18 the week after he graduated.

Family Pride

Although he’s not the oldest of the grandkids in his family, Brian is the first one to graduate from college. Not surprisingly, his parents are extremely proud of his accomplishments. “I think they’re still in a little bit of disbelief.”

Not only did his parents make the arduous journey to Colorado from Indonesia for commencement, his grandparents came, too.

“It all feels kind of unreal,” Brian says. “I just did what I thought was going to help me in the future, and somehow I ended up being the youngest graduate from my department at CU. I did insanely hard work—it’s just still hard to believe I’m done.”

Showing Gratitude

Brian is still in touch with his former advisor John Finney, who now works at CU. “It’s always been apparent that Brian cares about other people,” John says. “He wants to show his appreciation for people who have helped him.”

During Brian’s last semester at Front Range, he brought John some home cooked food to show appreciation for all of his help. “That’s part of his heritage and culture,” John adds. “He’ll find ways to show his appreciation for others his whole life.”

When John heard from Brian that he was graduating early, he was not at all surprised. “Brian’s a very high achiever and he was excited to start that pathway,” John says. “He’s not just trying to get through—he cherished the learning process. But he’s also excited to get things done to start his career.”

Helping People Through Technology

In the long term, Brian is interested in how computer science and neuroscience can connect to help restore autonomy to people who are disabled. “I really want to go into the field of helping people who are unable to speak verbally, to be able to speak through their microchip.”

While that might sound like science fiction, it’s not. Brian is excited about the work of tech company Neuralink, which is working on implantable technology to create a brain-computer interface. (Imagine controlling your computer or smart phone with your brain, instead of your fingers.)

“I would love for my PhD work to focus on finding non-invasive methods for that,” he says. “Right now, it’s a bit of a challenge—but I’m going to get there one way or another.”

On to Grad School

In the fall, Brian started working on his PhD in computer science at Colorado State University. Last semester, he got to teach Discrete Mathematics as a graduate teaching assistant in charge of 40 students in recitation.

“Once in a while, when the instructor is unavailable, I get to teach the lecture session in front of 100-plus students,” he says. At just 18, many of Brian’s students are older than he is.

Sound Advice

Brian credits one of his FRCC professors—math faculty member Ken Monks—with his decision to continue on to graduate school after CU.

“I didn’t know anyone who’s been to grad school before,” Brian says. “My family didn’t have enough financial support to continue my studies. I didn’t know that you can get funding to go for a PhD.”

Brian says Ken has been his most important mentor so far. “I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school without him. We had a great talk when he explained the process of going to a master’s or PhD program.”

Based on his conversations with Ken, Brian started looking for a human-focused computer science program. He was accepted into a fully-funded degree program in computer science CSU..

What’s Next

Brian’s research at CSU will focus on advanced algorithmic combinatorics After grad school, he would like to stay in US permanently. “I really like the work ethic,” he says. “The whole environment here suits me.”

His former academic advisor is certain we’ll be seeing Brian’s name again in the future. “I have no doubt that his research will be in the news,” says John Finney. “I’m really excited to see where his love of learning takes him.”

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