Xandra Abel plans to jumpstart her education — and career — to make the world a better place.
You couldn’t ask for a better daughter — or sister — than Xandra Abel.
Xandra is 13. She laughs readily. She’s matter-of-fact. She’s gifted but not aloof or arrogant. She wants to make the world a better place.
Let’s go find out what drives this extraordinary kid. Call her “Ex-ANN-dra” when you meet her.
We sat down with Xandra at the Old Fort Theater in Fort Madison as she prepared for an opening weekend performance of “Making God Laugh.” Xandra is the theater group’s sound and lighting technician.
Born in Iowa City in 2005, Xandra grew up in Fort Madison and is a 7th grader at Central Lee High School.
“I should be an 8th-grader,” she stated with a grin.
Actually, Xandra should be a 6th-grader but she skipped fifth grade.
“I might skip my junior and senior of high school and just go to college,” she said. “I haven’t quite decided yet.”
She’s hoping to get a scholarship, and with her 4.0 grade point average, she’s likely a shoo-in.
But is she smart enough to pull off college at age 16?
“I hope so. I don’t want to be stuck in high school anymore. I’m not getting any challenge out of being in high school,” she said.
What about leaving her middle school friends behind?
“A lot of my friends are juniors and seniors, so they’ll have graduated when I go to college,” Xandra said. “My best friend is in the same grade as me, and she’s thinking about doing the program, too, so we’d go together.”
That’s Emmy Liu, who plans to go into biomedical engineering.
“I want to be a mechanical engineer, I want to go into robotics,” Xandra said; she works with seniors in the robotics club. “I’m just learning how to build them, all the electrical stuff.”
She said part of what she wants to do is the 3D printing of human organs, combining her field with Liu’s to form a company.
“We’re going to work together to make stuff to help humans,” Xandra said. “That’s the general idea.”
Her parents, Matthew and Richar Abel, are both active in the Old Fort Players. OFP vice president Bob Britton got Xandra started in audio.
“My mom was talking to Bob, and he thought I would be interested in learning how the sound booth works,” Xandra said. “So my first time I did sound and lights was for a play he was directing, ‘You Can’t Get There From Here.’ The curtain opened and I turned up the master and the lights didn’t come on. I started freaking out. Luckily, Bob was standing right there and one of the switches wasn’t flipped.”
Welcome to the world of practical engineering.
“I’ve always wondered how things work,” Xandra said. “I was always very curious. And I was always asking questions. OK, so the car runs; why does the car run?”
Does she know why cars run?
“Yeah, a few different things,” she said with a nonchalant shrug.
Growing up, did she realize she’s smarter than other kids her age?
“Yeah. I mean, kindergarten, I was asking for homework,” she said. “That was when people kind of started noticing I used bigger words, didn’t quite fit in with anyone else.”
As one might expect, Xandra is good at math. Right now she’s in geometry. She’s in a physical science class, too, but “I’ll probably take physics next year.”
Her father Matthew has been in OFP six years, and he enjoys having his daughter there.
“It gives her something to do, something to take her mind off schoolwork and everything else, keeps her busy,” Matthew said.
As if she weren’t already busy, but what’s it like to have an above-average child?
“She really doesn’t present it any differently, it’s not like she’s talking above you or anything like that,” he said. “She just seems like any other normal kid. Instead of being frustrated at school, she’s bored at school. She’s like any other normal teenager; she has the same thoughts and fears and such.”
Are the powers at her school aware of her talents?
“They are. She’s had a TAG teacher for a couple of years now, Ms. Weber,” her father said.
The holder of the talented and gifted endorsement serves as a program coordinator for gifted K-12 students. Hollie Weber facilitates the school’s Extended Learning Program, which challenges and accelerates gifted students.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Xandra Abel since she was a second grader,” Weber said. “Xandra has always shown a desire and drive to excel in whatever she does and yet also is highly creative. She uses her creativity not only in theater and performance but also mechanically.”
Weber said Xandra’s science fair and invention convention work included designing and manufacturing an attachable tray that allows the wheelchair-bound the ability to enjoy meals at a table in restaurants.
“She found many tables did not accommodate the height of her grandfather’s wheelchair,” Weber said.
Matthew said Weber tries to keep Xandra engaged.
“It seems to be a little easier now that she’s in high school, because she can start taking college classes,” Matthew continued. “She still has to go to English, just sit there, she’s bored the whole time. Math, she’s done with everything within the first ten minutes of class.”
The University of Iowa has a program where a student begins her junior year of high school in college and earns college and high school credits at the same time.
“So in two years, you graduate from high school, but you also have two years of college education,” Matthew said.
He said the university houses those students in a special dorm for program participants only.
“So it’s a little bit more focused, as opposed to starting in college and throwing you to the wolves like any normal freshman,” he said.
Xandra’s mom Richar — say “reh-SHAR” like a French national — is a regular actor with OFP.
“Xandra went to the Belin-Blank Center this summer and did a five-day engineering program,” Richar said. “One of the things they got to do was see three-D printing and robotics.”
The Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development on nurturing potential in gifted students. Xandra attended their BSI camp, the Blank Summer Institute for the Arts & Sciences, a one-week residential summer program held at The University of Iowa for 120 gifted Iowa students in grades 7 and 8.
Is it unsettling for her mom to be on stage, knowing her daughter is lurking in the dark with her fingers on the faders?
“It’s really funny, she enjoys the power and control of running that,” Richar said. In one play, Richar and actor Ty Clute got closer and closer to each other.
“At a certain point, she turned off the lights,” Richar said with a laugh. “She thought that was kind of cute. She was in control.”
A lot of kids want to be a jet pilot or movie star, then they grow up and become something more mundane. What will happen with Xandra? Will she really become an engineer and make artificial hearts?
“She’s pretty determined,” Richar said with a smile.
Xandra said her favorite subject in school is “probably math.”
“Not like in school,” she clarified. “Math as a concept.”
Math outside of the classroom, in other words: real-life application.
And being a math head, it’s no surprise Xandra is also a musician and is a pianist in the Central Lee High School jazz band. She’s taken piano lessons for seven years.
For those of you who are math-challenged, that’s 13-7=6 years old.
Since she’s good at math, does that make her a good pianist?
“There are definitely people better than me. There’s one senior, he’s better than me. Got a couple years on me, too,” she replied with a smile. “But I’m working on it.”
So, why bother to do any of this? Why not just graduate, get married and have kids? Isn’t that what Iowans are supposed to do?
“I guess some people, that’s what they want to do,” Xandra said. “I’ve always wanted to be challenged. Like, I’ve always accepted that I was just kind of better at some things than other people? I’ve always wanted to be a little bit ahead and there’s no point in not being challenged. If you’re not doing something you like, you just don’t see the point sometimes.”
In other words, she doesn’t take the easy way out?
“No,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve never been able to.”
Richar’s father’s name was Richard, so her parents dropped the D when they named her, and that’s likely where the Abel family naming plan developed.
“I wanted something unique, like mine,” Richar said of her kids’ names: son Zephan is a year older than Xandra, whose middle name is Jadis.
“Jadis was my dad’s idea. It was going to be my brother’s first name, but he ended up being a boy instead of a girl, so it ended up being my middle name,” Xandra said.
As a newborn, Zephan was born with a rare heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, congenital heart defects affecting the structure of the heart.
“When my brother was in the heart ward, the other kids who were there with him, their names spelled out Jadis with their initials,” Xandra said.
They were Jalen, Ariana, Drake and Stephanie, who supplied the I and S.
“We came up with the name beforehand, but after he was born …,” Matthew said.
Those children are gone; Zephan is the only one left. He’s set to have open-heart surgery at Stanford sometime in the near future.
Now you know what drives this remarkable young woman.
“I want to make my company and help a bunch of people,” Xandra said. “Not necessarily like needing a bunch of stuff, but to know that I helped people and I used my talents for a good purpose, a good reason. That would be my goal, to be the best possible version of myself I can be.”
“Xandra is quiet yet friendly, supportive yet competitive, and simply the kind of student we’d all like to be able to call a student,” Weber said. “I feel very lucky that she lets me tag along on the ride.”
“She loves robotics,” Richar said. “She likes designing and building, the programming.”
“Once she gets into college, it’s hard to tell where her focus will go,” Matthew said. “Engineering is a broad field; I think she’ll be somewhere in there, whether she ends up making 3D hearts or not.”
Once Xandra Abel gets to the University of Iowa, she’ll be the kid in the candy store.
You can see Xandra at work this afternoon at the Old Fort Players Theater in downtown Fort Madison at 725 Avenue G when they present the final performance of “Making God Laugh.” The curtain rises at 2:00 p.m.
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