On May 7, 2011, at age 16, Kayla Heard made history as Washington State University’s youngest-ever graduate. A decade later, she reflects on her unconventional journey and discusses her post-WSU life.

Heard (’11 Soc. Sci.) displayed an early aptitude for learning. She identified letters at seven months, read flash cards at 18 months, and recited the names of presidents by age 3. She earned her high school diploma at 10 and her associate’s degree at 14, all remotely. “My mother is from the Philippines, a culture that highly values youth education, and she applied remote learning to increase the velocity of my education.”

Kayla Heard
Photo courtesy Kayla Heard

Heard applied to Washington State given the university’s pioneering work in remote education. From her so-called “nerd cave”⁠—the bedroom of her Union, Washington, home that was packed with journals and pens as well as books like The Jungle and volumes on Ancient Roman mythology⁠—the history major explored tales of the past and studied how humans achieved great things with a mix of self-reliance and mental fortitude. She applied those qualities herself in the then-rather primitive world of remote learning, where assigned readings, weekly assignments, and online discussions paled in comparison to the snazzy virtual classrooms of today. “I had to create my own structure, check my assumptions, and break down seemingly larger-than-life goals into manageable pieces.”

Heard’s 2011 graduation from WSU garnered widespread attention⁠—and mixed reactions. Though many saw it as an inspiring feat, others labeled it a disservice. “I learned an important life lesson then: the best direction for most is not the best direction for all. In fact, it’s the diversity of experiences that makes humanity beautiful.”

Though ready to charge into the workforce, Heard found employers reluctant to hire a 16-year-old. Resourceful and pragmatic, she enrolled in an online MBA program before securing⁠—quite intentionally⁠—a people-facing job as a medical office coordinator. “I realized my upbringing led to a different level of social development than my peers, so I wanted to build strength and capacity in social interactions.”

In 2014, Heard landed a call center position with Zonar Systems, a Seattle-based firm that provides smart fleet management solutions. She later moved into quality assurance testing and product management. “I fell in love with tech and its ability to inject value into the world.”

Today, the 26-year-old, who earned a second bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity, designs user interfaces for Zonar software. She performs user-experience (UX) research on market environment, design patterns, pain points, and more to ensure Zonar customers enjoy a positive, seamless experience. “I talk to people around the world about their needs and problems and learn about where technology is heading, which is all incredibly exciting.”

Though dealing with twenty-first-century technology, Heard sees an undeniable link to her WSU history studies. “Every day as a UX researcher, I’m trying to see the world through others’ eyes. That’s emotional intelligence I began to develop during my Washington State studies, where I started to understand the many variations of normal and had my eyes opened to different possibilities.”