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CCCC, LEC graduate Mlynn Wooden speaks about her journey

Click to enlarge,  Mlynn Wooden, a Central Carolina Community College and Lee Early College graduate, is now at the University of Mississippi Law School.

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Mlynn Wooden, a Central Carolina Community College and Lee Early College graduate, is now at the University ... (more)

09.27.2019College & CommunityCollege GeneralStudents/Graduates

SANFORD - Slowing down Mlynn Wooden isn't easy, but the Sanford native did manage to make a quick stop during a short visit to her hometown, en route between Cambridge and Oxford.

Cambridge, the small city in England on the banks of the River Cam, a couple hour's drive up the M11 highway from London, where Mlynn spent the last week of June and all of July studying at one of the world's most prestigious universities. Founded way back in the Middle Ages, the year 1209 according to a short history on their website, the University of Cambridge helped shape the world through an astonishingly long list of notable alumni that includes Sir Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking and someone you may know particularly well: A.A. Milne, who introduced the world to Winnie the Pooh and friends.

Yes, that Cambridge.

Oxford, maybe not the one that comes to mind right away: the university town at the intersection of a few state highways and home to Ole Miss, founded a good 628 years after Cambridge, where Mlynn is studying at the University of Mississippi Law School on a full scholarship. When she returns, after her pass through Sanford, to begin her second year of legal study, she'll start working beyond the introductory coursework in broad topics like contracts, property and civil procedure, and begin pursuing a specialty.

What will that be? She's not sure, though trademark and copyright law have some appeal. One thing's almost certain: Whatever she pursues, it will be on a fast track, headed wherever the opportunities lead.

Journey Began in Sanford

Law school wasn't even on the map just seven years ago when Mlynn stepped out of SanLee Middle School and onto the fast track at Lee Early College. She had no grand plan at the time and, truth be told, she doesn't even now. All she knew was that she wanted to get there quickly -- wherever "there" might be -- and the public high school offering Mlynn the chance to earn her diploma and associate degree in five years or less looked like the ticket.

"I actually wanted to be a doctor; I wanted to do plastic surgery," Mlynn said, looking back during her stop in Sanford. "I wanted to go to medical school and thought that Lee Early College was the best way to get a couple of years of school out of the way." Little did she know at the time that her course would take twists and turns she never saw coming.

Mlynn hit the accelerator quickly and never let up. Just three and a half years after leaving middle school, she found herself walking across the graduation stage to accept her high school diploma from Lee Early College and her Associate of Arts from Central Carolina Community College -- all in what seemed like world record time.

Nick Testa, who was Mlynn's guidance counselor at Lee Early College, says three and a half years is an amazing accomplishment. A few students since the school opened have finished in three years even, but many of them entered with a lot of credit already in hand. Still, packing the traditional four years of high school and two years of community college into barely more than half that time is extremely rare. "It doesn't happen often," Testa said. "In all the time I've been here, that's only happened a handful of times."

Rare, but maybe not a shocking surprise. "Lee Early College offers a great opportunity and a great program, in general, but it's up to the student to take advantage of it. You could tell from the beginning that Mlynn was definitely one of the students who would. She set some great goals early, stuck to them and achieved them. That's a big accomplishment."

A Change in Direction

For Mlynn, the point wasn't just getting through school. It was about getting all she could along the way, and the relationships she built in the process had a huge influence on what she'd eventually become.

While studying at CCCC, the aspiring plastic surgeon landed by chance in HIS 111: World Civilizations I, a class taught by Bianka Stumpf, social sciences lead instructor for the college. Something immediately clicked. "I loved the way she taught, the way she did these debates in class and the way she went about analyzing history like I hadn't thought about history before," Mlynn explained. "She was so energetic that it got me excited, too."

So after her initial history course on western civilizations was done, Mlynn took a second and third in American history. Eventually, Mlynn says, she came to understand that history helps reveal how humanity works -- and how humanity has always worked. "You can see cycles of events that are going on today and how they all connect the past and brought us to where we are today," she said. "It is interesting to see all of the accomplishments people have made and the struggles they have gone through. How we're still here today in spite all of that."

Each time, Mlynn walked into the next history course her teacher gained a little more respect for her very young, but unusually mature student.

"She struck me as someone who was obviously an intelligent student, but I also found her really thoughtful," the teacher explained. "When we discussed material in class, you could almost see the gears turning. She would take a controversial issue that has a lot of different perspectives and let it sink in before she would even speak or write about it. Then, she molded it in a thoughtful and analytical way that is the sign of maturity."

When Mlynn moved into Meredith College in Raleigh to complete her bachelor's degree, she wasn't sure what to choose as a major, but the experience with Stumpf stuck with her, so history it was.

But not one to do just one major, there had to be another. And that would be ... economics? It seemed like a surprise even to Mlynn, who describes herself charitably as "not really a math person." So much so that she actually ended up in economics mainly so she could avoid taking calculus, which was the alternative.

"But once I was in it, I really enjoyed it," she said, describing how it allowed her to combine social science with math, allowing numerical patterns to emerge and help explain behavior she saw in the real world.

When she graduated from Meredith College, Mlynn was just 19 years old.

Destination: Unknown

Given her experience back at CCCC, history makes perfect sense. You can even understand the choice of economics as a second major. But why law? It was yet another case of Mlynn seizing an opportunity.

As her friend, Maria, prepared for law school, Mlynn tossed her practice questions from the LSAT admissions test, and the more she absorbed in the process, the more she got interested in law as a career for herself. On its face, law seemed more like paperwork than the kind of social impact Mlynn was studying in history. But as she went deeper, that perspective changed.

"I saw the amount of good you can do and how you can influence things," Mlynn said. "For Maria, it was immigration law and how she wanted to help her community. I love history. For me, and I don't want to sound narcissistic about it, but I want to be a part of history."

When she heard Mlynn was going to law school, Stumpf noted as she got to thinking about it, her former student had all of the skills -- the ability to write clearly and persuasively, to process information from different perspectives and to listen carefully. Mlynn wanting somehow to be a part of history made the decision seem almost inevitable.

Summer is in the rearview mirror along with the eclectic collection of topics the now-21-year-old studied at Cambridge: International Advocacy and Dispute Resolution, International Sports Law, and something completely off the map, International Regulation of Cryptotransactions. (Interestingly enough, the course in cryptocurrency was the one that caught her attention right away, even though Mlynn freely admits she's not so good with technology. But it was interesting and loosely related to some of the legal specialties she was thinking about pursuing. It almost seems like the economics double major playing out all over again.)

As her middle year of law school begins, Mlynn still isn't sure what she wants to practice or where exactly she's headed. But she's not too concerned about that, because she'll focus on working hard, moving quickly and looking for opportunities that could change her path. It's been her approach from Lee Early College and even before.

"Even if you're doing something and are not quite sure where you are going to go, it will turn out fine," she says. "Everything will be OK, because there's a positive light at the end of the tunnel. For everything."