Heysil Baez came to the United States at age 10 from Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, in 2012, knowing only one English word — hello. On Monday she graduated second in her Lawrence High School class, having earned the distinction of salutatorian.
Baez, who turns 18 next month, will now take what Kathleen Stanley, an assistant Lawrence High principal, called her “enormous grit and determination” to Cornell University and study computer coding, which has become her passion.
“As a student at Lawrence High School, Heysil challenged herself with Advanced Placement classes while participating in Show Choir, Science Bowl and student government,” Stanley said. “Heysil has been a model of good character and perseverance for the entire student body. We are confident that there are great achievements in her future.”
That future began as Baez entered the second half of the school year in fifth grade at Lawrence Middle School. Living in Inwood with other family members, including an older cousin, Brianna Walsh, a member of the Lawrence High class of 2017, Heysil started learning English and becoming acclimated to American culture.
“It was new and strange moving from one class to another,” she recalled. “We did not move in school in the Dominican Republic. I learned to use a locker. In the D.R. there was no bus. I walked or my mom dropped me off. I would take my sweet time from my locker to the bus, and my cousin kept telling me I [was] going to the miss the bus.”
Baez might have been late catching the bus home, but it didn’t take her long to catch up with her classmates. In middle school she got acquainted with her new environment, and in high school she jumped into the deep end of the academic pool.
Lawrence High science teacher Rebecca Isseroff said that if you asked most students about taking chemistry, their faces would droop and they would most likely say, “It wasn’t my best subject” or “I just didn’t understand it.”
“Now imagine sitting through classes when they’re taught in a language that you’ve just learned a few years before,” Isseroff said. “A double whammy! Yet Heysil was able to soar above most of her classmates in both honors and Advanced Placement chemistry, scoring a 90 on the chemistry Regents and a 4 on the A.P. exam, even though both courses were taught at lightning speed in English, and her native tongue is Spanish.” Usually, only 25 percent of students score a 4 or 5 on the A.P. chemistry test, Isseroff noted.
And Baez wasn’t just an “attend school, go home and study” student. Involved in student government as the student council’s secretary, she was also a leader in the high school’s dance department and a member of the Show Choir, and has played on the badminton and soccer teams since her freshman year.
“I have this self-expectation to make the immigration worth it,” Baez said, explaining her academic and extracurricular success. “I wanted to make my parents happy.” Her immediate family includes her mother, Heydi Calderon, her father, Silsrido Baez, and his sister, Sheysil.
Last summer, Baez attended a seven-week-long Girls Who Code camp sponsored by the biopharmaceutical company Pfizer at its Manhattan headquarters. The program aims to propel young women to careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“I fell in love with technology,” Baez said, “and they taught not only coding, but other aspects of the technology field at Pfizer and had guest speakers. I like the thinking process and how detailed [coding] is and how exact it is. If it’s not right, it’s going to be wrong.”
She was not only in tears after she read the acceptance email from Cornell, Baez said; she was also in shock. She was speaking as she prepared to attend the university’s pre-freshmen summer program, which runs from June 19 to Aug. 7. (She received permission to take a break from the program to attend Monday’s Lawrence High graduation.) At Cornell she plans to major in computer science. A combination of an income-related grant and academic scholarship money will pay her tuition for all four years.
“She’s a natural leader and a delightful, energetic, upbeat and extremely intelligent young lady who is destined for success simply because she will make success happen,” Isseroff said. “Heysil Baez is testimony to the assertion that if you work hard enough, the American dream can become a reality.”