Salma* is the youngest of three daughters in her Bangladeshi-American family. Every weekday, Salma commutes an hour and a half from her multiethnic neighborhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to Stuyvesant High School in Tribeca. She’s currently a sophomore there, and taking chemistry, global history, computer science, trigonometry, European literature, and Japanese, where she’s written a 12-page picture book in Japanese and is learning how to make sukiyaki. Every day after school, she goes to taekwondo lessons until 8 p.m.; on weekends, she practices the sport from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Beyond that, Salma doesn’t have time for much else, but she’s spent a lot of energy thinking about why Stuyvesant has been in the headlines.
As NYC’s most elite specialized high school, Stuyvesant has a demanding but simple admissions process: Students are admitted solely based on how well they do on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). As such, admissions is technically colorblind, but the recent crop of students don’t represent the racial demographics of the city: Out of 895 students in the incoming freshman class, less than 5% are Black and Latinx. Asians like Salma are the overwhelming majority.
But far from a monolith, these Asian students come from a variety of backgrounds, neighborhoods, and cultures, though most are low-income (Bangladeshi-Americans are among the poorest in NYC of any ethnic group; one in three live in poverty). As a group, Asian students have been cast as unwitting villains in this dustup about race, privilege, and opportunity. But many of these young students are attempting to make sense of policies and elitisms that are outside of their control, and from which they've technically benefitted from.
In the discourse swirling around Stuyvesant’s admissions process, we’ve heard arguments from politicians, parents, alums, journalists, and other adults about what’s fair, what’s broken, and who — or what — is to blame. But how do the students feel about it? We spoke with Salma at the start of her spring break, to gather her thoughts about how current Asian students like herself think about it all.
Editor’s note: We’ve used a pseudonym to protect Salma’s identity.
How did you get into Stuyvesant?
I got a really good education at a well-ranked public middle school, but they didn't really specifically prepare us for the SHSAT. We had Kaplan prep after school, but students had to pay for it. But they did prepare us for the state tests. If you're good at taking state tests, and know [how to answer] those types of questions, doing well on the SHSAT is achievable.
Most of the students from my middle school went to Brooklyn Technical High School and a lot of the good non-specialized schools. About ten got into Stuy.
My parents expected me to go to Stuy, because my middle sister went to Stuy. Even Brooklyn Tech wasn't an option. It was either Stuy or my zoned public school a couple blocks from home. To my parents, if it wasn't Stuy, then all the other high schools seemed the same in their eyes.
As the test was approaching, I crammed as much as possible. As the test was getting closer, the reality that I might not get in set in. My sisters bought me multiple books, and I used those to self study. I didn’t do the Kaplan thing, because my mom didn't pay for my older sisters [to attend Kaplan classes], so the understanding was why should she have to send me to prep?
Many others also self-studied at Stuy, but there are also students on the other end of the spectrum whose parents had them start studying years before. I felt like I was as well-prepared as I was going to be.
How has Stuyvesant been different than your middle school experience?
I went to middle school at a public school Brighton Beach, Brooklyn that was predominantly Russian-white. Coming into freshman year, I was shook. I thought Stuy was the most diverse school in the planet. I have never seen so many non-white people in one school. So when people are like Stuy isn't diverse, I'm like — I'm pretty sure it is.
A lot of my friends are from Queens, and went to school in Jamaica and Jackson Heights, which are predominantly Brown. I have a bunch of friends from private schools, where everyone is rich, snobby, and white. A lot of my friends who come from Brooklyn are from the Park Slope area, so their middle schools were mostly Black or white. I have Black and Latinx friends, but not as many as Asian friends.
On an academic level, middle school was almost purely for socialization. There was no worry over grades. I had a 98 average, and I was 10th highest in the honor roll, and I never studied a single day in middle school, and I was still one of the best in the class.
But at Stuy… As a freshman in European Literature class, I remember being like 'Oh my god, I have this really genius thing to say.' And then five people would have the exact same thought. The teacher would be like ‘Oh, yeah, that’s good,’ and move on. And then some person would say this really, really crazy-genius thing, and I’d be like 'Wow, I would have never thought about that.' But that average genius thing I would have said? That would have been the top idea in middle school.
What is it like to be a student at Stuy?
It’s weird because, at Stuy, everyone’s smart. I don’t think popularity at Stuy has to do with race as much as it has to do with how rich you are, how cool you are, or whether you wear trendy clothes or not. The cliques are really mixed.
Even the prettiest, coolest, sparkliest people who look like Brandy [Melville] models and are on the swim and lacrosse teams are also really good academically. There are the druggie kids, and everyone is friends with them, and they’re way less uptight than the sparkly, cool people. There’s also this whole gang who are all about memes and making cool videos. They're funny. There are all these people who are in chorus who hang out together. The debate kids stick together. There’s so much drama on the debate teams — that's a whole thing.
Everyone in my own group is very different. One person in my group, she was literally the one person who all the guys were in love with. But she wasn’t part of the sparkly group for some reason. Another girl, my best friend — well, she was my best friend — she's the crazy funny one. We're just a loud bunch of kids. You could probably hear us faster than you could see us.
How do students talk about the lack of Black and Latinx students?
When the news came out, it just wasn’t a big thing in Stuy. No one cared about it. We saw it in a random newspaper and everyone was just like, okay. We’re used to places writing about us. I remember one time, one of the chairs broke during one of our theater productions, and that made headlines. Everyone was like why?
Honestly, we were more vocal about school shootings. There was a whole walkout, a lot of us missed class for it, and we went to city hall. We were way more vocal about guns. The reason that Stuy is Stuy is that we’re the smart kids who do well on tests. NYC has LaGuardia, which is for people who are good at dance or music or singing. We have other schools with different talents that anyone else with those talents can get into. I think that’s one of the reasons that everyone in Stuy thinks the SHSAT test should be there, because if the test wasn't here, what's the point of Stuy then? What's the point of even being here?
We understand that it's terrible that in some neighborhoods, the students aren’t given information about the SHSAT. And that sucks! But in Stuy, we have way too much homework to care about it. It doesn’t affect us, because we’re already in. We should definitely look into how the funding for schools get divided, and where they go and how it can be used better. There should be more programs in those neighborhoods. I think the lack of Black and Latino students is definitely just a problem of middle schools not emphasizing the SHSAT enough. They don’t have the same kinds of resources that my middle school had. The fact that schools in different places are funded differently is a huge issue.
Adults have a hard enough time talking about race. How do high schoolers talk about race at your school?
Honestly, it personally feels great being surrounded by all of these other people who look like me. Because my middle school also didn't have that many Black and Latino students, I had a harder time paying attention to the lack of them at Stuy.
Before Stuy, I was surrounded by people who, if you described someone as white or Brown, everyone would be like — fake gasp, you’re a racist! But, duh, you can do that. It's stupid to not mention race. Maybe because there were so few Black students at my middle school, everyone also just used the n-word. It wasn’t right, and we shouldn’t have done it, but we didn’t know. Like, I used the n-word. Going into Stuy, my friends were like, Salma, you shouldn't use that word. We talked about it, and I don’t anymore. Anyone who does, who isn’t Black, we're like, ‘Why are you trying to be cool? You can’t say that.’
Those are the basic things. We’re comfortable making jokes about race. And whether you’re rich and white or whatever, a lot of people understand their privileges.
Do you feel like Asians at Stuy feel a different kind of pressure to do well?
Well, I was born here, but my parents were born in Bangladesh. Most of us at Stuy are first generation — like 70%. That’s especially true for Asians. My mom definitely cares more about me having my grades up than me having fun, having more friends, or being in different clubs. I can do all that if I maintain a 93+ average. My best friend, he’s white squared — like 4th-generation white — and he literally has a below 90 average, and his parents are like ‘Life will take you where it’ll take you. Just relax. You don't have to worry about what you want to do for college.' It's like how? How is that fair? If I was a parent, that'd be the kind of parent I'd be. I'd be supporting — as long as he has fun, and he gets his homework done, and isn't a bad kid. That’s how it should be.
Personally, when relatives or friends or aunts ask what school I go to, the first thing I'll say is ‘a school in Manhattan.’ There’s no way to say 'Yeah, I go to Stuy' without them being like ‘OhHh yOu gO tO StUy?' Honestly, me saying it's a school in Manhattan is also bragging, because I know it's that good that I want to hide it. I definitely don’t want to outwardly brag about it.
How competitive is the environment for students?
Most of my pressure to do better comes from peers. We all know that it's us who are getting into the top colleges. Knowing that, we all feel like we have to do better than each other, so that way we can secure that spot in the elite colleges. But there’s also a stigma against studying too much. Some of the kids who study weeks before regular unit tests, like...even though we're all technically nerds, but that’s a separate kind of nerd.
It's actually really stressful thinking about the future. A lot of students who go to Stuy think that they're worried that they're going to get into worse schools than other kids who don't go to Stuy. Literally, I’m doing well, but I still feel average. We know that we are definitely the top among the city, but because we’re surrounded by the top and people who get the same scores as us, the 10 point difference we get on this test or that test matters. Some of us think that if we weren’t in Stuy, we’d have a better chance at going to a top college.
Honestly, I want to go to a taekwondo college, but the chances of my parents allowing me to go to a school that specializes in taekwondo is very low. So at this point, it's just getting the best grades and best PSAT/SAT scores, so that I have an option to go to the best school I can go to. I didn't study, and I got a 1400. A lot of my friends got 1470s, and it's like ahhhh. No one studied for the practice one. I’m so worried. I need at least a 1500. I should be studying.
In #NotYourTokenAsian, we take on the pop products, stereotypes, and culture wars that surround Asian-American identity. Follow along as we celebrate our multiplicity during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.