COLUMBIA -- Ioana Gradinaru knew no English. Neither did her older brother, Adrian.
That was something their mother, Rodica Gradinaru, couldn't teach them before they moved to Columbia from Romania six years ago.
"It was a big handicap," Rodica Gradinaru said.
Ioana and Adrian quickly overcame the language barrier by studying hard, staying committed to doing well in school and accepting the help of teachers and classmates at their new schools.
Now, Ioana Gradinaru has an invitation to a free college education. Actually, she has won three full scholarships to the University of South Carolina, and she's only a high school junior.
For the fourth consecutive year, Ioana is champion of USC's annual High School Math Contest, which was held in December.
Ioana, a first-year student at the Governor's School for Science and Mathematics, beat out more than 160 students in this year's competition to lead her school to the Division 1 title.
The second-place winner: Ioana's former high school, A.C. Flora, a Richland 1 school known for its English-as-a-Second-Language curriculum.
Ioana's mathematical prowess has paid off.
She won a four-year, half-tuition scholarship in the contest when she was an eighth-grader at Crayton Middle School and another when she was a freshman at A.C. Flora. Both last year and this year, she won four-year, full-tuition scholarships.
The best part about winning isn't so much her accomplishment and rewards, however.
"At the end, what made me the happiest was just to see everybody so excited," she said. "I've never had teammates get that excited, and to see everyone hugging and smiling, it was great."
Ioana is well-rounded, though she laments some of the affectionate, but not-so-wise cracks about "nerds" that peers have made over the years.