Transfer Students: Stuyvesant’s Hidden Student Body

Issue 5, Volume 113

By Dalia Levanon 

The vast majority of Stuyvesant students share a common experience: how they got here. In the fall of eighth grade, along with 30,000 other NYC students, most students took the notorious SHSAT exam to gain admission to Stuyvesant, then matriculated in their freshman year. However, there is a small group of students who did not begin their Stuyvesant high school career this way. Each year, approximately 10 ninth-grade students are admitted into the Stuyvesant sophomore class. Here are their stories.

Senior Daria Minhas (he/they) attended Staten Island Technical High School during their freshman year. “I started studying on my own for the SHSAT, using SAT books, actually. There’s not that much information on the Internet about retaking it, since only around 3,000 people do,” they said.

Senior Glen Cuccinello also self-studied for the ninth grade SHSAT exam. “In eighth grade, I didn’t get into any school that I wanted, which really motivated me to do better and gave me something to work toward. It was definitely the biggest goal that I’d ever worked for in my life at the time,” he said.

Sophomore Michelle Ng, on the other hand, found out that she was taking the SHSAT just three days before the exam. “I just took it for fun and then I actually got in. I originally wasn’t gonna come here, but I decided whatever, YOLO, I might as well come and try the experience,” she said.

A major reason for students deciding to retake the SHSAT was their desire to experience Stuyvesant’s unique social environment. “At Staten Island Tech, the class sizes were extremely small, and I felt like I wasn’t building my network as much as I wanted to. Everybody was pretty cliquey, so if you didn’t have friends when you got there, then you were kind of screwed,” Minhas said. They were also deterred by their previous school’s political atmosphere. “Respectfully, the only things that come to my mind whenever I talk about Staten Island are the anti-vaxxers and Republicans. Frankly, it’s not safe for a person like me to be there because I’m a gender-nonconforming and queer person. I just don’t feel safe there. And I’m not going to say that Stuy is perfect because I get misgendered every single day, constantly, but it’s definitely much better on the spectrum of having more respectful people.”

While some students were in search of a more welcoming social environment, the primary reason for sophomore Gary Huang’s decision to transfer to Stuyvesant from Hunter College High School (HCHS) was the appeal of greater academic opportunities. “Stuyvesant is a much bigger facility. At HCHS, you weren’t able to take AP classes until the 11th grade, while Stuyvesant offers AP courses for every grade,” he said. Huang was also interested in education experiences outside of the classroom. “At Stuy, there is this one program, CIEE, that allows you to travel to a foreign country. Hunter didn’t have that.”

Huang notes that Stuyvesant offers more support with advanced courses as well. “In Hunter, you’re allowed to accelerate grades if you take a special test, but there is no actual help to facilitate that kind of acceleration, whereas with the Honors Algebra II program at Stuy, there’s a teacher helping you, guiding you through the course.”

Cuccinello also transferred to Stuyvesant because of his interest in academic opportunities. “At West End Secondary School (WESS), there were maybe 30 classes in total that you could take throughout all of high school. They only had one computer science class, which was really just an elective where I self-studied some coding language. The classes here allow me to find out what I’m actually passionate about,” he said.

On the other hand, Ng initially had reservations about going to Stuyvesant. The major turning point in her decision was the open house she attended in the spring. “I went with my aunt and dad and we just walked around on every single floor. I really liked the labs, like the innovation and robotics lab. I also saw Stuy Legacy perform, which was really cool,” she explained.

One factor that appealed to Minhas while deciding whether to transfer was Stuyvesant’s location. “I’m a city person. Staten Island is just so far, and traveling there was such a waste of time. You really couldn’t do anything except go to CVS or Chipotle,” they said. Their current proximity to significant events in the city has allowed Minhas to build their mutual aid network, along with a plethora of other opportunities. “I do fundraisers with [senior] Lea Esipov, and a lot of the resources that we get are from Stuy alumni who are also in the city. I wouldn’t have been able to meet all these people and organize these events without being in Stuy, in this amazing location surrounded by so many great people.”

Stuyvesant’s location was important to Ng as well. “It’s just nice knowing that I go to school every day and I’m right next to the World Trade Center and the Oculus. That’s so cool because it’s an actual tourist spot. It’s like, ‘Wow, I go to school here every day.’”

When Huang left HCHS for Stuyvesant, he didn’t tell many of his friends that he was leaving. “It wasn’t until my first cross-country meet that a bunch of my Hunter friends found out. I had done cross-country at Hunter and now at Stuy, so when I saw my old team at the meet, it was kind of like a family reunion,” he said.

Minhas’s friends also found out about their transfer in an unconventional way: “I actually took the SHSAT at Staten Island Tech, which was really funny because when I showed up, the people monitoring the test were my classmates, and they were like, ‘What are you doing here?’”

One factor that made Cuccinello hesitant to transfer was the fact that he would have to leave his friends from WESS behind. “I grew really close to the people I met at WESS; they’re probably going to be lifelong friends of mine. I still talk to them basically every day, and I go visit them every once in a while. When I told them that I got into Stuyvesant, I was still considering staying at WESS because I didn’t want to miss spending time with them. But they were all really supportive,” he said.

Cuccinello’s close friendships with his former peers also allow him to draw comparisons between the workloads of both schools. “At my old school, nobody studied for tests,” he said. “You could just show up for the test and if you went to class, you’d probably do well. [Now,] sometimes I’ll be studying at like one or two in the morning, and my friends from WESS are going to sleep around then. They finish their homework at like, six.”

Minhas, Ng, and Huang agree that their current workloads are significantly heavier than those of their former schools. “The difference between Stuy and other schools is that we are treated with a different level of maturity. There’s a lot expected of us, so we’re given lots of freedom. And I do really like Stuy for that,” Minhas said.

Another key difference between Stuyvesant and other high schools is the size of their respective student bodies. Staten Island Tech, HCHS, and WESS all had class sizes under 300 students, which is only a third of Stuyvesant’s average class size. While a large school may provide many opportunities for academic enrichment, Minhas points out one of the downsides of matriculating in a graduating class of over 900 students. “I came here to take the classes that I wanted, but when I got here, it was like a ‘Hunger Games’ type-of-thing just to get an AP class. In Staten Island Tech, if you apply for an AP, you get it. You can take whatever classes you want because it’s more individualized to each student. Stuy is too big of a school to be worrying about individual students. We are all just another OSIS number.”
Cuccinello also experienced more individualized attention at WESS. “Because it’s such a small student population, everything is basically one-on-one. I bet the principal knows everybody’s names and has probably spoken with everyone at least once at WESS,” he said.

Ng noticed another difference between the social environment at Stuyvesant and her former school. “I feel like Stuy is very online, like we have Facebook group chats for every single class and teacher, but at Staten Island Tech, we just kind of all knew each other because there’s a lot less people there,” she said.

Huang notes a particular challenge that transfer students face at such a large school. “It’s definitely weird making friends as a sophomore when you don’t really know anyone from last year,” he said. However, Huang acknowledged that making friends at HCHS was also not an easy task. “I didn’t really live near anyone at Hunter, so it was kind of hard for me to get to know other people.”

Another consequence of Stuyvesant’s larger student body is the difficulty that students encounter while trying to sort out their course requirements after transferring. Minhas had trouble arranging their sophomore schedule. “I ended up taking both Art Appreciation and Music Appreciation in the same semester sophomore year. And I had a 10-period schedule with no lunch period. It was very illegal,” they said.

Ng finds the humor in her atypical course load. “I’m taking physics right now and all the other sophomores are taking chemistry. So it’s just funny when they ask to see my schedule and they see things like physics and Mandarin I next to each other. I’m also in Junior PE because my lab has to sync with physics,” she said.

Despite their issues with programming, Minhas, who is a former junior Olympic gymnast, deeply appreciates the athletic program at Stuyvesant. “After doing 20 hours of gymnastics per week, and then coming to Stuy and being in that tiny half of the third floor gym, obviously I thought, how am I supposed to do anything here? But at the same time, it opened up my eyes to a whole new way of doing gymnastics that didn’t involve driving myself to exhaustion. There's so much more leeway at Stuy to be training the way I need to and to be taking care of my body the way I need to.”

Minhas also found new athletic interests through their time at Stuy. “Last year, I joined out of nowhere to be a diver. I broke my arm, showed up, and said, ‘Yo, I want to be a diver.’ And the swim team was like, ‘Cool.’ And then I showed up the next day, I said, ‘My arm is broken. I can’t do this for a little bit, but I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.’ And they just took me right under their wing,” they said. Minhas has also played softball for Stuyvesant, and is now applying to colleges with division three diving teams. “I would never have been able to do this at Staten Island Tech. Back then, I was literally doing pole vaulting, like running with a big stick. I’m just really grateful for PSAL and my athletic experiences at Stuy in general,” they said.

Cuccinello too marvels at the athletic opportunities at Stuyvesant. “Since WESS was founded so recently, in 2016, all of the sports teams were still being created. And there weren’t any clubs at all. Stuyvesant is definitely very different in that sense.”

Most students agreed that the teachers at Stuyvesant and their former schools varied based on personality. Minhas, however, appreciated the consistency of their teachers in their previous school. “You couldn’t get a bad class there in the sense that the teacher would always be qualified to teach the class—it would never be some mumbo jumbo,” they said. “The difference between Staten Island Tech and Stuy is that in Stuy, the teachers make or break the class, and I will stand by that until I die.”

Coincidently, Huang has seen some familiar faces this year at Stuyvesant. “A few teachers from Hunter recently transferred to Stuyvesant this year, like my AP world teacher, Ms. [Marissa] Shapiro. My freshman English teacher, Ms. [Sarah] Lifson, also transferred here.”

An intriguing aspect of the transfer student experience at Stuy is their specialized homeroom “JA.” Since transfer students enter Stuyvesant later than the rest of their peers, they are grouped together into JA homerooms each year. “Homeroom JA helped a lot. We had Big Sibs and they helped us sort out all our problems because there’s a lot of complications regarding classes when you transfer. At least two or three of the Big Sibs we have are also transfer students so they understand the struggle which is really helpful,” Ng said.

Cuccinello shares a similarly fond recollection. “There’s only around eight of us, so it’s definitely a lot smaller than a normal homeroom. But it’s interesting because all these people have the same event that happened in their life. They all tried to do the same thing that I did. They also were able to do it,” he said.

When looking back at their years at Stuyvesant, Minhas reflects on the significant lessons that they have learned. “Stuy has definitely taught me how to talk to adults really well. That’s a really funny thing. Like at job interviews; I used to get so nervous with any sort of public speaking or anything like that. But now I run my own club and am the captain of a sports team. Stuy really taught me how to articulate myself.”

Ng, who is only two months into her Stuyvesant career, describes the lack of awareness of transfer students at Stuyvesant. “When I tell people that I transferred, they are really surprised, because they can’t even tell.”

Whether it was the location, community, or academics that drove these resilient students to Styuvesant, they all agree that they have no regrets about transferring. Their experiences have introduced new friendships and passions into their lives that they did not have access to in their previous schools, broadening their potentials for exploration both in and out of the classroom. While not widely recognized, transfer students play an important role in creating the Stuyvesant that future ninth-grade students will someday aspire to attend—the Stuyvesant that opens its doors to students regardless of the path taken to get here.