WESTFORD -- Jessica Bates, of Methuen, and Victoria Forbes, of Townsend, graduated from Middlesex Community College on Thursday, May 23, with associate degrees in liberal studies.

Nine days later, on Saturday, June 1, they will receive their high-school diplomas at Nashoba Valley Technical High School's graduation ceremony.

If that seems a bit backward, they're looking nothing but forward.

Jessica and Victoria, while still enrolled in Nashoba Tech's Dental Assisting program, spent the last two years of high school attending MCC as part of the state Dual Enrollment program, which allows qualified high-school upperclassmen to attend college full time at a reduced cost.

It's not for everyone, but these two young women, who both turned 18 while in college, proved that Dual Enrollment can be a valuable tool for driven high-school students.

"It's really structured," Jessica said. "We had to be determined to get through it all. It took a lot of hard work. Not many people can say they have a college degree when they're 18."

Both had a role model who went through Dual Enrollment before them. For Jessica, it was her sister, Jennifer, a 2005 Nashoba Tech graduate who spent her senior year at MCC and went on to become a dental hygienist. For Victoria, it was a friend who had gone through the program and "talked it up a lot."

Both say they came to Nashoba Tech because of its Dental Assisting program and because of its strong Dual Enrollment affiliation.

"I came in knowing I wanted to do Dual Enrollment," Victoria said. "People were saying, 'Oh, but you're going to miss out on the high-school experience.' But I really wanted to do this."

Jessica, who will attend Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., to study health-care management, said Dual Enrollment provided "a good stepping-stone."

"I'm glad I got the experience at Middlesex," she said. "You have to have drive.

We stayed committed the whole time."

Colby-Sawyer is accepting 52 of Jessica's credits from MCC. By taking two online courses over the summer, she'll be able to graduate from Colby-Sawyer in two years with her bachelor's degree at age 20.

Victoria will continue at MCC, entering its dental-hygiene program.

"You have to be willing to sit down and study for hours and keep your grades in mind," Victoria said of Dual Enrollment. "There were times when I wanted to say, 'Forget it, I'm going back to high school. It's way easier.' "

Both are happy they stuck with it, and they heaped praise on Lauren Ellis, their career and academic adviser at MCC, and Amanda Samaha, their guidance counselor at Nashoba Tech.

"They helped so much, but you have to be a self-advocate," Jessica said. "You're on your own. I mean, your parents can help to a point, but you're in college. You have to take care of yourself, make sure you get to class on time."

"It looks great on your résumé or going for a job interview," Victoria said. "It's definitely going to help having that college experience already when I go on to further my education."

That's not to say it wasn't a little awkward at first.

"It was really odd walking into the first class and there were no kids our age," Victoria said. "One of the students was a mom, and she was talking about how her child was home sick. And I'm like, child? I'm 16."