‘Summerland’ actress juggles TV career, college classes

Allison Corneau

Maintaining a full-time job while attending school is not easy and requires exceptional time management skills and a strong work ethic. Many of us with hectic schedules often long for more than just 24 hours in a single day.

For “Summerland” actress Kay Panabaker, multi-tasking is just part of the daily grind. She packs her days so full it is a wonder she actually gets sleep at night. In addition to filming her supporting role on the WB drama, the actress is taking college courses at night and is halfway through completing her Associate’s Degree. Panabaker’s situation seems somewhat common in today’s fast paced society. What’s even more unique is that she is doing all this at the age of 14.

Starring as Nikki on “Summerland,” which premieres its second season on Monday, Panabaker is no stranger to the acting business. After recently relocating to Los Angeles from her native Chicago, the young star has been featured in “7th Heaven,” “Angel” and “ER.” She recently lent her voice talents to the film “Monster’s Inc.”

The Chronicle caught up with Panabaker on a recent break from “Summerland” filming for a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she explained what it is like to juggle college and a budding television career at age 14.

Beginning her professional acting career at the age of 10 with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Panabaker took a leap of faith when she traveled to Los Angeles to audition for larger roles. Luck was on her side. After only one week of auditioning, the actress landed a role in “Dead Heat” with Kiefer Sutherland. Subsequent recurring television roles followed, leading her to her current gig on The WB.

Her latest acting venture, “Summerland,” tells the story of three children [played by Nick Benson, Jesse McCartney and Panabaker] who move from their home in Kansas to live with their aunt [Lori Loughlin] in California, following the death of their parents. As Panabaker describes, the show is “family-oriented” and aims to maintain a wholesome aspect to their program, which details the blended family’s interactions and real-life conflicts.

Filmed using a backdrop of the picturesque beaches slightly north of Malibu, Calif., “Summerland” affords Panabaker and cast mates the opportunity to soak up the sun while on location. Instead of taking in rays, the actress makes the most of her time in between scenes by hitting the books. While most students her age are struggling to make it through the ninth grade, Panabaker is halfway done with a college degree.

“In this business you have to be self-motivated, otherwise it makes things really difficult. I’ve always been work first, play later, and so far it’s worked out for me phenomenally,” Panabaker said.

Opting to enroll in college courses initially to complete a high school chemistry requirement, she decided to continue with the curriculum level, applying her college credits simultaneously toward her high school diploma.

“I went to a rather abnormal high school,” Panabaker said, “I only went two times a week for an hour each time and did all my school at home…which allowed me to go at a pretty fast pace. I did about two to two and a half years of high school work in about a year.”

“I’ve got 25 out of 60 [college] credits, which puts me at about halfway done with my associate’s degree, which is rather exciting for me being almost 15,” Panabaker said, of her degree that she hopes to put to use teaching fourth or fifth grade students.

Like any other 14-year-old, Panabaker makes time for hobbies other than acting, which include listening to music, keeping up with friends back in Chicago and reading. She also explains that her new home Los Angeles has also afforded her the opportunity to get a glimpse of a celebrity or two. She laughs when recounting a recent encounter with Brad Pitt.

Aside from the occasional celebrity encounter, which offers a glimpse into the star studded lifestyle all around her, Panabaker works to constantly keep grounded in an industry that she understands may not offer the career longevity she currently envisions. With that in mind, she is planning ahead.

“I’m not going to get my degree in film or theater or directing or anything to do with the business because I can learn that on the job. But if later on down the road I decide acting’s not for me, that I don’t want to be in this business any more, or if I never work again in this business, I want to have something to fall back on.”

“The second that acting becomes just a job to me and it’s not something I enjoy is probably the second I quit the business because that’s the reason why I got in the business, I got in the business because it’s what I enjoy doing so if I don’t enjoy doing it, why do it?” Panabaker said.

Viewers can see Panabaker at work doing what she enjoys best, in her role as Nikki Westerly on The WB’s “Summerland,” airing Monday night at 9 p.m.