Professor J. Edward Taylor and his two sons all walked away with diplomas from a high school graduation last June.
First across the stage at the Mentoring Academy in Oakland: Julian Fletcher-Taylor, 18.
Then came his brother, 22-year-old Sebastian, who works in a UC Davis research lab, but got there without a high school diploma.
And, finally, their dad, the professor — who didn’t have one, either.
“Everyone but my wife graduated that day,” said Taylor, who joined the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics in 1987. (His wife, Peri Fletcher, is a research associate with the UC Davis Division of Social Sciences.)
Sebastian left high school early, due to medical issues; he resumed his education in courses at Berkeley City College and UC Berkeley Extension, and, according to his father, by “devouring everything that is available in his fields online” — achieving such mastery in math and chemistry and biology that he’s authored several papers on brain research.
“He is without doubt one of the smartest and most well-rounded people I know,” Taylor said.
Sebastian works in the Jon Sack and Vladimir Yarov-Yarovoy labs in the Department of Physiology and Membrane Biology. Sebastian and dad frequently commute from Berkeley, by bicycle from home to the train station and then to Davis on the Capitol Corridor.
Now for the professor’s story: He left Redlands High School (San Bernardino County) in 1974, at the end of his junior year. The next fall, he took a Greek classics course at the University of Redlands, and after that he gained admission as a freshman at UC Riverside, winter quarter 1975.
UC Riverside liked Taylor’s SAT scores but nevertheless put the 18-year-old without a high school diploma on academic probation. It would last only two quarters, as Taylor excelled in his classes and would end up graduating at the top of his class in 1979.
Then he was off to UC Berkeley for a master’s degree (1982) and a Ph.D. (1984) in agricultural and resource economics.
As you can see, lack of high school diplomas did not hold back Taylor or Sebastian. But they were more than happy to join Julian at graduation, so as not to make him the odd man out — as the only one of the three to have a diploma!
“When the school director (John Muster, the academy’s founder) raised the possibility of a triple graduation with Julian, he thought it was a great idea,” Taylor said. “All three of us got a kick out of graduating together. I think it meant a lot to Julian having both Sebastian and me there.
“Julian and Sebastian are very close and have huge respect for each other, and Julian recognized the importance of Sebastian’s getting that diploma.”
The Mentoring Academy staff collected the necessary transcripts and evaluated Taylor’s and Sebastian’s published research, concluding that they had completed the needed work for college preparatory high school graduation.
Taylor’s research — primarily in economic development, immigration and rural poverty — is plentiful: He has written or co-authored more than a dozen books, and more than 100 book chapters and journal articles. He’s co-editor of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.
He is the director of UC Davis’ Rural Economies of the Americas Program, or REAP, part of the university’s Institute of Governmental Affairs; and co-director of the Program for the Study of Economic Change and Sustainability in Rural Mexico, El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City.
This year, besides graduating from high school, he received a Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award from the Davis Division of the Academic Senate, recognizing him for his work advising the United Nations and other international agencies, as well as foreign governments, on economic development.
On June 7, Taylor and Sebastian donned caps and gowns and sat with Julian at the Mentoring Academy’s first commencement. The entire class — seven in all, including the professor and Sebastian — sat on the stage.
“The audience had no idea what either one of us was doing up there until the school director explained it to them,” Taylor said. Even the professor’s mother was surprised — expecting to see grandson Julian receive his diploma, and then seeing her son and Sebastian get theirs, too.
The program included testimonials for each graduate: science teacher Garret Mayer spoke for Julian, Sack spoke for Sebastian, and Mary Taylor-Asarnow, Taylor’s sister, spoke for him.
“Sebastian performs research at the level of a Ph.D. candidate,” Sack told Dateline UC Davis. “He has presented his work at the annual meeting of the international Biophysical Society, and is co-author on a manuscript currently under revision at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.
“Sebastian is remarkably bright and determined to become an independent scientific researcher.”
Each graduate said a few words, too. “I gave quite a bit of thought to that, because not having a high school degree did not seem to set me back in life, and I wanted to send the right message,” Taylor told Dateline.
“It was a kinder time back then” — in 1975, when he decided to go to college, he said. “UC Riverside was willing to take a chance on me.”
Today, he said, “things are different, everyone needs a high school diploma (and), sadly, many highly talented kids are falling through the cracks.”
“Had there been a place like Mentoring Academy when I was in high school, I would have been in the class of 1975 (the year he was supposed to graduate from Redlands High) instead of the class of 2014.”
Mentoring Academy personalizes its curriculum to meet the needs of individual students, many of whom go to the academy to take more courses that are more advanced than those in conventional high schools. The academy’s central features include a strong focus on developing life skills in addition to its demanding academic program. Students attend school from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with the expectation that homework is completed at school.
Julian completed his high school requirements with three years of math beyond calculus, science and engineering courses at UC Berkeley, and AP English, besides serving as an intern with NASA.
Now he is off to UC Santa Cruz in the fall, in the honors program, double-majoring in robotics, and technology and information management.
Back at UC Davis, Taylor’s diploma, with tassel draped over it, is on display in his office. “My students say it is awesome,” he said.