On his 16th birthday, Sebastian Galdamez received an Arduino electronics kit from his mom.
He unboxed the gray and blue packaging to reveal a blue microcontroller board the size of his palm. It was intricate, with several pins across the front that connected to a breadboard used to prototype electronics. He heard from a friend that the kit would be helpful if he wanted to study engineering.
Six months later on April 8, Galdamez and his family piled into their car and drove an hour and 45 minutes from their home in the Bronx, New York, to Lehigh University.
It was 70 degrees, and the leaves of the large oak trees rooted across the planes of the South Mountain campus were barely budding. Students and their parents swarmed the gray stone walkways that lead to the UC Front Lawn. “Welcome Class of 2021” signs seemed to be everywhere. It was candidates’ day for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Galdamez was one.
He was just 16 years old.
“I knew I was going to be nervous, but I tried to tone it down,” Galdamez said.
In August, Galdamez became the youngest of 1,244 students in Lehigh’s class of 2021. The acceptance rate had reached an all-time low at 24 percent that year, putting him in an even more elite group — fewest of the few to start college early.
Galdamez dreams of becoming an electrical or mechanical engineer someday. He always excelled in math and science, so the decision to enter the engineering school was simple.
But his South Bronx high school didn’t give him much exposure to the field.
“I haven’t really had major experience with it besides the Arduino,” he said.
The fortuitous gift he received for his birthday, which he had been experimenting with ever since, was the same tool he’d use in his introductory engineering course.
Galdamez said his parents have always given him direction. They came to America as teenagers — his dad from Guatemala and his mother from the Dominican Republic. They met in community college and had two children — Sebastian, and his 14-year-old sister, Kimberly. Galdamez refers to them as the biggest influences in his life, helping him develop a hard work ethic and the determination to make it to college — two years early.
At Galdamez’s home on 179th and Bathgate streets, the block comes alive with the sounds of blasting music and police sirens. It’s the constant backdrop of the Bronx — the birthplace of hip-hop and the home of the New York Yankees. It’s oozing with a vibrant culture and overflowing with corner stores.
It’s loud and lively, but it’s home.
“It wasn’t a poor neighborhood, but it wasn’t as prosperous as others,” Galdamez said. “If I hear police sirens outside, I’m used to that. But now I can’t sleep to crickets.”
The Bronx’s cultural energy has never faded, but the schools in the borough north of the Harlem River steadily trail the rest of New York. As of 2016, the Bronx has the highest high school dropout rate at 16 percent and only half of high school seniors graduate, according to the New York State Education Department.
Galdamez attended elementary and middle school at St. Joseph’s Catholic school, just two blocks from his home.
“I felt they did a good job of raising kids who don’t have the best of situations,” Galdamez said.
Administrators there allowed him to skip sixth grade after showing his remarkable abilities, despite already starting school a year early.
But advancement wasn’t easy.
For Galdamez, skipping a year meant he had to learn quicker and work harder. He put in longer hours to catch up and developed a work ethic he now carries with him at Lehigh.
From St. Joseph’s, he went on to attend Fordham Preparatory School, a 175-year-old all-boys Catholic school, where he took several AP classes, got involved in sports and maintained his love for baseball. Before he knew it, it was time to apply for college, two years earlier than most kids his age.
He applied to 15 colleges with the help of fee waivers and ultimately pared his list down to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Lehigh — a battle of two engineering schools.
“Even though I (waited) until May 1 to choose a college, I still had that feeling inside of me that I was going to choose Lehigh,” Galdamez said.
On May 1, the final day to make his decision, he submitted his deposit online, and it was official. Galdamez didn’t know he would be the youngest student to join the class of 2021. He was simply looking forward to the social scene and was ready to discover the special feeling he had when he visited campus in the spring.
His opportunity finally came when he moved to campus in August, and the Office of First-Year Experience was awaiting the arrival of the first-years.
They began four days of orientation — Galdamez’s first official taste of Lehigh.
Stefanie Burke, the assistant dean of First-Year Experience, wants to help all students. She doesn’t think twice about age.
“Obviously if they got into Lehigh, they have the ability to be successful here,” Burke said.
Burke said first-years are offered a wealth of resources to navigate Lehigh, such as orientation leaders, seminars with students and staff and events throughout the semester. Galdamez’s orientation leader knew of his age and was prepared to be a resource for him.
Galdamez’s commitment to success gets him noticed.
“Seeing this first-year student that is very adamant about getting involved and very energetic about meeting friends and building connections is admirable,” said Aarsenio Perry, the assistant director of student engagement. “I can only imagine what that’s going to mean for him.”
Galdamez says he is adjusting fine. What he misses most is going to the nearest corner store and picking up a mango Arizona iced tea.
As for the pizza, he laughs.
“I mean, I’m from New York.”