When Schenectady High School seniors were in ninth grade, guidance counselors visited the school’s English classes with a pitch for a new program: join now, expedite your high school classes, add in college courses your junior year and graduate in four years with both your high school and associate degrees.
Some of the students who signed up in the first cohort of the program accomplished just that this spring, joining SUNY Schenectady County Community College’s May 20 graduation ceremony and planning to do the same at tomorrow’s Schenectady High School graduation.
“It feels surreal,” more than one of them said the morning of the community college commencement, when the first seven students to complete the program gathered to celebrate as a small group in one of the school’s large classrooms.
The Smart Transfers program, which has grown to over 100 students since the first cohort was accepted in spring 2018, isn’t for every student. But it isn’t just for the most advanced students. The program promises personal attention and the support resources of both the high school and community college. Now accepting 32 incoming ninth graders each spring, with Schenectady students applying in eighth grade, the program targets first-generation college students, though not exclusively, and is fully paid for by a state grant.
“We have a culinary student, (the program) pays for his pots and pans this year,” said Pamela McCall, who manages the program as the SUNY Schenectady director of college and high school partnerships. “Everything they would need to be successful in the classroom, we provide, so it’s not a burden on their family at all.”
SUNY Schenectady established the program in partnership with the Schenectady City School District thanks to an over $1 million grant from the state Education Department, and the University at Albany and SUNY Delhi both committed to accepting students who complete the program and the credits that place them essentially halfway through a bachelor’s degree the moment they step foot on campus.
The students, who near-universally recalled those class visits from the high school guidance counselors, said the program was challenging but not impossible and that it forced them to develop greater independence, stronger study skills and a deeper understanding of the college experience.
They didn’t mind the head start on those pesky college credits, either.
Meet the program’s first graduates:
Petrie, who was joined by his parents the morning of the SUNY Schenectady graduation, said he didn’t know if the accomplishment had fully sent in for him.
“They seem to be more excited about it than me,” Brady said of his parents. “I’m not sure if I’m still in shock about it. It’s just kind of surreal.”
He earned a degree in criminal justice at SUNY Schenectady and also took a variety of music classes – calling out Applied Electric Bass as his favorite course. He plans to continue his bachelor’s degree through SUNY Delhi, taking advantage of a program that allows students to earn a Delhi diploma while remaining in Schenectady.
He heard about the Smart Transfers program in his ninth grade English class and liked the sound of it.
“I heard about it and thought I might as well try to get into it,” Brady said. “I don’t like spending more money than I have to.”
Brady mentioned it to his parents, who thought it was a good idea but wondered how strenuous the work would be.
“The only fear was whether it was too overwhelming a challenge,” Brady’s dad said. “It’s geared to help them get through it. There’s always the resources available.”
Brady said it was a challenge juggling the different due dates and assignments of community college but that he enjoyed the greater flexibility – coupled with higher expectations – of college classes.
“It’s a lot less rigid than high school,” Brady said. “I have to figure out when stuff is due by, then I have to get it done.”
While before the pandemic Brady took one virtual class and three on-campus classes at the college, this past year he took all his classes online.
“I told so many people about the program,” dad said. “The big thing is it brings them to be more mature, faster. It’s great for the cost: it doesn’t cost even a penny.”
“It feels sort of surreal,” said Devishti Jainarain, who plans to continue her studies at UAlbany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity. “I can’t believe it’s happened, but I’m really proud of myself.”
She also remembered a guidance counselor visiting her English class in ninth grade to explain the new program. At the time, Devishti planned to take International Baccalaureate classes, an advanced program of study at the high school, but she instead opted for the expedited college degree program. Now, she says many of her friends at the high school who battled through the challenging IB program have come to envy her ninth grade forethought: “I should have done that instead,” they tell her,
But she has no regrets with her decision.
“Everything about this program is great,” she said. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to be in it, to be honest.”
She said there is a strong support system and that the community college professors and staff are generous with their time and willing to answer questions.
“You are not doing this alone, so it’s not too challenging,” she said.
Devishti also enjoyed the broader selection of courses available to her as a SUNY Schenectady student, giving her a chance to find new interest from a class she would have never had access to at the high school alone.
“I took a serial killer and mass murder class,” she said. “Those really sparked my interest.”
“I didn’t expect it to be so amazing,” she said of the class. “They don’t offer things like that (at the high school).”
She hopes to eventually work as an intelligence analyst and said she was interested in a so-called “4+1” program at UAlbany that enables students to earn their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years. “It should be more like three years,” she said. That puts her on track to earn her high school diploma, associate degree and possibly bachelor’s and master’s degrees in seven years – a path that could easily stretch for a decade or longer for many students.
Most of the Smart Transfer students said their workload peaked in their junior year of highschool, when they were balancing both high school and college classes. But as their time in school goes forward, they take fewer and fewer high school classes, effectively transforming into full-time college students. By the time they walked across the stage and received their associate diploma at a May ceremony in the SUNY Schenectady parking lot, many of them were down to just finishing a gym class to complete their high school requirements. They will join their high school classmates at the school’s June 25 graduation ceremony.
“I’m pretty much chilling,” Devishti said of her final days as a high school student.
Fletcher joined the program in ninth grade, because she was interested in the opportunity to take more advanced classes.
She said she liked that Smart Transfers gave her a chance to take more advanced science classes than what’s offered at the high school and had an opportunity to experience life as a college student.
“I could take classes that are more rigorous than at the high school,” she said. “I like the college experience and learning from professors, learning how to be more adult.”
Fletcher is not graduating from SUNY Schenectady, but she did complete the necessary 60 credits of the program and is set to attend Wellesley College in the fall, where she plans to study neuroscience.
Not all of the credits she acquired through Smart Transfers will transfer over to Wellesley (SUNY universities accept most, if not all, credits from the program, but private colleges accept credits based on their own criteria), but she said the experience, and the credits that will transfer, were invaluable.
She said she particularly enjoyed some of the advanced science classes she took at SUNY Schenectady and connected with the professors. Now, as she heads off to Wellesley in the, she already knows what a college class is like and how to manage those expectations.
“It’s extremely positive,” her dad said. “I feel like she has that foundation for college that she needs.”
Madani, who focused on science at SUNY Schenectady, had mixed emotions the morning of the community college commencement, but he was happy to finally put his coursework behind him.
“I feel a little bit stressful, a little bit relieved as well,” Madani said. “I’m relieved that I don’t have to take more courses.”
Madani plans to study engineering and cybersecurity at UAlbany in the fall and plans to pursue a career information security. He said he was drawn by the idea that he could start acquiring college credits sooner rather than later and listed calculus as his favorite class.
“I prefer to get college-level courses and fulfill (degree requirements),” Madani said, noting that college “gets expensive.” “It saves time, energy and is more efficient.”
Madani, like the other program graduates, said taking college classes directly through the college taught them to develop the kind of personal study skills needed to succeed in college. Madani said while in high school teachers will go out of their way to ensure a student completes an assignment or doesn’t fall behind, that responsibility falls primarily on the student’s shoulders in a college course.
“It’s your responsibility to do the coursework, and it’s your responsibility to ask teachers if you need help,” he said.
Madani’s sister, Krishna, a Schenectady High School graduate who went on to earn her associate degree, attested to her brother’s hard work during his time balancing high school and college courses.
“He was staying up until 11 or 12 at night to study for exams,” Krishna said, adding a note of regret that Smart Transfers wasn’t in place earlier. “I wish this program was around when I was at the high school.”
Ram Madani was happy it was at least in place by his time.
“This program did change my life, it changed my life in a positive way,” Ram Madani said.
“Why not get it done faster?” Preetish said of thinking when he learned about the program in one of those ninth grade English classes .
He said education is very important in his family and he saw the program as an opportunity to get a jump start on college. He called completing the program “one of my biggest accomplishments yet.”
Arjune plans to study biochemistry at Florida Atlantic University in the fall and said he is interested in pursuing a career in scientific research – adding that career goals are “always subject to change.”
Like others in the program, Arjune pointed to junior year as the biggest challenge: he was taking classes part-time at the high school and full-time at the community college, including some night classes, while also balancing participation in high school sports. The balancing act and the elevated expectations of the college courses forced Arjune to become more self-sufficient, he said.
“I figured out how to do a lot of stuff by myself,” he said.
But he also said eight and ninth graders considering the program should not be intimidated, arguing the challenge sounds bigger than it actually is. He said any student who puts in the work, asks for help and takes advantage of that help can make it through the program.
“It sounds like a lot, getting the 60 credits, but it’s really not,” he said. “It is doable, very doable.”
It didn’t happen on its own, Arjune’s dad pointed out.
“He put in the work,” Arjune’s dad said. “He put in the work. I don’t think he gives himself too much credit.”
Depoo immigrated to Schenectady from Guyana at the start of high school and was interested in getting involved in the high school’s advanced IB classes, but he couldn’t qualify because of issues with a foregin language credit requirement. Instead, he was referred to the Smart Transfers program and became one of the last students to join the final cohort (which started out as 10 students).
“I saw it as an opportunity,” he said. “I came from Guyana and right into ninth grade. I wanted to get on the right track.”
Depoo studied criminal justice at SUNY Schenectady and plans to continue doing so at the College of Saint Rose in the fall. He plans to pursue his bachelor’s degree and eventually go to law school, hoping to one day work as an immigration lawyer.
He said younger students should not fear the seemingly-daunting mission of the program but instead give it a chance and challenge themselves.
“My advice would be to try it out,” he said. “Take that challenge. It really puts you on the right track.”
As he waited for the May 20 commencement ceremony, all he had left to finish for his high school diploma was gym class.
“I’m going to still be bugging you about that gym class,” promised Lauren Guagenti, the program’s success coach, who serves as a point person tasked with ensuring the students in the program accomplish their goals.
Guagenti, a former Schenectady middle school teacher, provides ongoing support to all the more than 100 students involved in the Smart Transfers program. She said watching the first cohort in the program graduate will be like watching her own children walk across the stage.
“It’s definitely emotional,” she said.
Sahaman is also headed to UAlbany in the fall, where he plans to study chemical and computer engineering. He wants to pursue a career in electric vehicle engineering, melding his academic interests in electrical engineering and his personal interest in cars.
“I feel like that would be a good career to get into,” he said. “I see there is going to be a big change.”
Growing up, he has helped his dad build cars and he sees the electric vehicle field as ripe for growth for years to come.
Sahaman said he will be able to mostly jump right into the core courses of his major instead of spending his first year taking the general college-wide requirements that most UAlbany freshmen must take.
“It was just the head start, really, that helps,” he said. “Just the fact that I could get two years of college – and for free – it was a big help for me and my family.”
He said the last two years of school – all of which went virtual in the pandemic – have been a challenge, but that he has been able to figure out the work schedule that best fits his style and patterns. He said he is most productive in the morning. He also took courses over the past few summers to help keep apace of the expedited coursework in Smart Transfers.
He said any student with an open mind, and willingness, can reach the same success as he and his fellow graduates in the program.
“It’s not even for the best students, anybody can do it if they have an open mind and are willing to put in the work,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be an A+ student. You just have to push through it.”