WEST FARGO — Fifteen days before Seljon Akhmedli finished high school classes, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from North Dakota State University.
Although the 17-year-old has already finished her undergraduate degree, she still has an advanced placement economics test to take and an essay to write to complete high school, but come this fall she’s off to Northwestern University near Chicago with a full ride scholarship to study for her Ph.D. in mathematics.
“If you had told me a year ago that this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have believed it. Right now, it’s a mixture of emotions, but overall I am very happy and grateful,” Akhmedli said.
She and her family didn’t realize that the AP classes she chose at Sheyenne High School could add up to a bachelor’s degree until less than a year ago, in July 2020.
“She’s not a nerd type; she’s a hard worker. She took AP exams and got credits and suddenly it became clear that she can graduate,” said Akhmedli’s father, Azer Akhmedov, who is a mathematician and professor at NDSU.
Graduating high school and college in the same month didn’t mean Akhmedli gave up her teenage years, she said.
“I was able to find a balance. I guess I really didn’t play video games, but I wouldn’t have played video games anyway. I feel like math is something I enjoy, so spending time for that, even for requirements, I enjoyed it. I didn’t feel like I couldn’t do things other teenagers could do,” Akhmedli said.
“It’s kind of like being two different students,” Akhmedli said. “In high school I had a lot more friends, but at NDSU, I still had friends, but it was a different environment.”
Akhmedli’s journey began in the sixth grade when she started picking up seventh grade high school math courses. Then calculus came during ninth grade. She chose a college sociology class for fun. Soon she discovered she enjoyed college classes more than high school classes.
Besides numbers, topology and dynamical systems, Akhmedli also enjoys creative writing, biology and chemistry, and was involved in soccer and music, she said. There are no courses of study she doesn’t enjoy, and she proclaimed biology as her minor at NDSU.
She finds comfort within the structures of mathematics, she said.
“There are many difficulties that I usually have, and maybe some people think I was born being good at math, but it definitely requires a lot of effort and work. I love it very much, but there is still a lot of work I have to put into it to excel at it,” Akhmedli said.
“I think even for the best mathematicians in the world, there are difficulties,” Akhmedov said.
“There are those moments in math when you know you’ve solved something,” Akhmedli said.
“In art, there are no rules, no boundaries, where in chess there are rules, and math is kind of in between. There are still rules and you’re not as free as an artist, but as a chess player you play within that board. You can view chess as part of math, and yet both chess and math are a part of art,” Akhmedov said.
Her fascination with mathematics began when she was young.
“When I was little, my dad would give me these little math problems and then applied to the real world, that is primarily what got me interested in math. And putting applications aside, there is so much in math that you can do with it. They all have their own beauty and their own structure that I really admire,” Akhmedli said.
Akhmedli chose Northwestern University because of the quality of the mathematics department and said she felt a connection to teachers already there. But studying post-graduate isn’t like becoming a freshman in college.
“A little bit, yeah. Living on my own, it’s not like I’m going to a dorm, I have to rent an apartment and there’s more responsibility on me,” Akhmedli said.
“It’s been a little hard for us,” said Kamala Gasimli, Akhmedli’s mother. “We didn’t expect she’d graduate at the same time, but I am so excited for her. From her childhood she has also shown that she was a hard worker, even with her toys, she would read the labels carefully.”
The Akhmedov family is originally from Baku and the Nagorno-Karabakh village of Jabrayil in Azerbaijan. Akhmedli was born in Connecticut after both Akhmedov and Gasimli fled their home country during two years of war following the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Akhmedov, like his daughter, became fascinated with mathematics around 11 or 12 years old, and later in life graduated from Yale University, he said. With the world potentially at Akhmedli’s feet, she plans to follow in her father’s footsteps in academia.
She wants to teach.
A recent story featuring Akhmedli’s accomplishments in the Sheyenne High School newspaper, the Mustang Post, said that Akhmedli “has made a large impact on Sheyenne, and we hope to see other students following in her prestigious footsteps.”