HE PRETENDED to be typing on a laptop for the television cameras. He stood in the middle of the University of South Florida’s Marshall Center, a bright ray of sunshine cutting through his green graduation robe as an array of cameras click-click-click-clicked.
When he was asked to walk from one end to the other, he did, as more cameras followed him, photographing and filming his every move.
“It’s kind of hard to look natural doing this,” Drew Falkowitz said, sheepishly smiling.
On this day, though, it was the price of celebrity. In the center of campus, while his classmates studied while sipping from Starbucks cups, Drew was famous for a few hours — as he became the youngest graduate in the 63-year history of USF — and the story everyone wanted to tell.
The 16-year-old Tampa Palms resident, who graduated on May 3 with a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in Cellular & Molecular Biology — and still doesn’t have his driver’s license — found the whole experience even stranger than he had anticipated.
“I figured, eventually, there would be press that would be generated around this,” said Drew, adding, “I’m not a very public person. I like staying low and not being in the spotlight all the time and having my three years of college and no one’s even talked to me until now has definitely been a breath of fresh air.”
The son of Tracy and Steven Falkowitz, who have lived in Tampa Palms since 2000, Drew is a true wunderkind, although he doesn’t seem to think all that much of it.
He’s smart. Super smart. And always has been.
His trajectory to becoming USF’s youngest graduate is different from your average student, but not so different from other gifted children who simply had outgrown their peers the moment they entered pre-school.
In Drew’s case, he started kindergarten at a Montessori school, and by the time he was in the first grade, they had moved him to the upper class, which was for grades 4-6.
He devoured course work, exhausting nearly everything available in middle school, and started taking high school classes online when he was a 9-year-old 6th grader being home schooled by Steven, who worked out of their house.
Steven remembers Drew completing workbooks faster than other kids his age finished coloring books. In fact, Steven says Drew’s first word, fittingly, was “book.”
When he went for his two-year-old pediatric check-up, Steven told the physician that Drew was already reading. The doctor scoffed, and then handed Drew a pamphlet about asthma to read aloud.
The doctor called in another doctor, because he couldn’t believe it, and Drew read another pamphlet for them.
“These kinds of things kept happening,” says Steven.
“At 20 months, he started reading, and no one had ever taught him how to read,” Tracy says. “We’re not entirely sure how he learned. He was writing essays by four years old. He learned division on a car ride to pre-school.”
Steven and Tracy knew they had something unique on their hands, but raising a boy genius isn’t exactly something found in the parenting manual. The learning took care of itself, and they knew their son was headed for a different academic track than most kids his age.
But, how would he develop socially and emotionally while being surrounded by older kids or, in the case of being home-schooled, by no kids?
Finding Help…In Reno?
They sought the help of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Reno, NV, that was formed in 1999 and says it “serves profoundly gifted people” ages 18 and under.
Steven says Drew was the last 4-year-old accepted there (the age limit has since been raised to 5). Davidson offers programs, summer camps in Reno, databases and resources for families raising gifted children.
Drew qualified for Davidson’s Young Scholars program, which assists parents and students with support, and he attended three summer camps.
“They talked us off ledges sometimes,” Steven says. “We reached out to them a number of times.”
His parents got Drew involved in activities at the New Tampa Recreation Center and in their neighborhood. He joined his synagogue’s youth group, volunteered for the Joshua House and took part for a few summers at Camp Jenny, a “Mitzvah Corps” project that helps children from an impoverished Atlanta community learn.
He could have entered college at 10 or 11 years old, but Steven and Tracy resisted.
“What do you do with a 13-year-old college graduate?,” Tracy asks.
Even so, Drew bristles at the suggestion he was denied a “regular” education, or that he missed out on many of life’s rites of passage that come with attending middle and high school.
“I have a high school experience,” Drew says. “I have friends my own age. I have friends in college. I hang out and do basically the same things you do in high school or college…I would not give it up if it meant giving up everything else I have been able to do from skipping ahead…I wouldn’t give that up for a couple of parties.”
Drew says he is not that much different than any other teenager. He plays video games — “I can smoke anyone in Mario Kart 8” — and watches YouTube and Netflix and tweets.
In December, he took up the electric bass and has fallen in love with it.
While he said school was always boring to him until college, his last semester was his most gruelling. He took 18 credit hours of mostly 4000- level classes, had to complete a senior thesis and also had to conquer Bio Medical Physiology, which he says is the toughest class he has ever taken.
“It’s one of these classes you walk in and say, ‘There’s no way I’m getting an A in this class,’” says Drew, who, by the way, got an A.
In fact, he got all As his last semester, and boosted his overall USF grade point average to 3.93.
Maybe some of the credit should go to the rock band Metallica. To relieve stress, Drew spent his free time during the semester teaching himself how to play the instrumental version of the group’s “The Call of Ktulu” on his bass guitar.
“I set a goal to be able to play (it) and even bought an overdrive pedal so I could do it,” he says. “In five months, I managed to do it. It’s really a technical piece and one of the things I’m most proud of.”
Drew will start working on his Master’s degree in cancer research when he returns to Tampa after his internship at Yale University in New Haven, CT, where he will do autism serotonin research.
He says that after he earns his Ph.D. degree, he hopes to pursue a career in medical genetics, with a focus on mood disorders like schizophrenia, bipolarism and schizo-affective disorder. He says he finds the genetics behind the disorders “extremely interesting,” and he hopes it will provide him a chance to help people.
And, as uncomfortable as the attention for being the youngest-ever USF grad may have been, Drew will try to enjoy his moment in the spotlight. After all, he knows it won’t last forever.
Last year, 11-year-old William Maillis graduated from St. Petersburg College, earning his Associate degree, and transferred to USF to study astrophysics for his Bachelor’s degree.
“I guess I’ll have the title for a couple of years,” Drew says, chuckling, “then William is going to come in and steal my throne from me.”
And that will just fine by Drew.