In a First, Top Two in East Hampton Graduating Class Are Latino

Alexander Sigua Pintado, right, is the East Hampton High School 2018 valedictorian. Jonathan Gomez Barrientos is the salutatorian. Judy D'Mello

While President Trump’s “great, great wall” to keep immigrants out has yet to be erected, two East Hampton High School seniors quietly proved the value of breaking down barriers and investing in young immigrants instead.

Alexander Sigua Pintado, who is called Nick, has been named valedictorian of East Hampton’s class of 2018, which has 215 students, while Jonathan Gomez Barrientos has been chosen as the salutatorian. Both are children of immigrants. They became the first Latino pair in the school’s history to finish in the top two spots in the same year. In 2006, J. Sebastian Pineda was the first Latino valedictorian and in 2012 a Latina was the school’s salutatorian.

“I could not be more proud of these two young men,” said Adam Fine, East Hampton’s principal. “They are excellent students and great boys. They represent our school with class and dignity.”

Dignity is indeed a word that comes to mind when speaking with Nick. Sitting in Starbucks on Monday, the 17- year-old exuded humility and grace. He shared, after much coaxing, his staggering high school grades that landed him the top spot. “I think my weighted average is around 101.4 percent. Maybe a little higher now.”

Which basically means he never, ever flunked anything. Or even faltered. But his story goes beyond the numbers. After all, plenty of young Americans today tout impressive test scores and G.P.A.s, often thanks to a retinue of hired help contracted over several years with the express purpose of getting kids into elite colleges. There are test tutors, life skills coaches, college counselors, essay consultants, and even psychologists to perform evaluations needed to get students extra time on college application tests.

“We definitely couldn’t afford a tutor,” said Nick, whose parents are from Ecuador and moved to Springs 20 years ago. His mother works in the cafeteria at the Ross School in East Hampton, and his father is a carpenter and landscaper. “I would use online resources to help me practice for the ACT and ask my English teachers for help with my essay.”

He said he learned the value of working hard during the summers when he would help his father with manual labor. His essay, incidentally, was not about his underprivileged immigrant life but about how being short defined his life.

Nick applied to Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, and Columbia. In early January, only a couple of weeks after submitting his applications, he got a call from the Yale admissions office. “I thought I had forgotten to send something with my application,” he said, smiling. Instead, the coveted university, with an acceptance rate of about 6 percent, told Nick he had been accepted and would be receiving a “likely” letter, sent to applicants the admissions office wishes to secure early. Each year about 300 athletes and approximately 100 regular students receive such a letter.

He said he would wait to hear back from the other schools before deciding, as much will depend on the financial aid he hopes to receive. He wants to study political science and hopes to become a political analyst, and would like to go to law school. He dismissed his impressive story as simply “chasing the American dream,” and said he was shocked to learn that he had been named valedictorian, as everyone thought it would be Jonathan, who was named the salutatorian instead.

Jonathan, an academic superstar since middle school, left Guatemala for East Hampton at the age of 5 with his mother and three sisters. None of them spoke any English.

“Only a couple of months after we moved here the recession hit and my mom couldn’t find a job,” he said. She worked as a housekeeper, and the fatherless household struggled mightily. “It was really tough,” Jonathan remembered. “The responsibility of raising four kids was all on my mom. I don’t know how she did it.”

Today, his mother works as a caretaker for young children. His eldest sister is pursuing an online degree in psychology and works at the Springs School, while another sister will graduate this year from Medaille College in Buffalo. His youngest sister is a sophomore at the high school. He said he hasn’t seen his father in about 10 years and has no contact with him. During the summers, Jonathan works at La Fondita and Townline BBQ restaurants.

He scored in the 97th percentile on his SAT test, with no tutoring. He was accepted early into Cornell University — his first and only choice — where he plans to study astronomy with a minor in physics. His goal is to work for NASA one day.

“I was pretty confident that I would get in,” he said of receiving the good news from Cornell. “Not cocky but confident.” In addition, the university was “very generous and offered a lot of money.”

Jonathan is sharp, direct, and looks you straight in the eye when he speaks. He smiles a lot, too, and seems really happy to sit and talk for as long as you will listen. He spoke about how his curiosity for astronomy was launched when NASA landed a rover on Mars and about going on a school trip to Malawi in his junior year to help build a primary school. He was in the African nation for 10 days, which he described as a throwback to his life in Guatemala. “There was no internet, no TV, no phones, kids just playing soccer, and I thought, ‘I remember that.’ ”

He also spoke passionately about wanting to provide a better example to young Latinos, whose culture, he explained, is deeply rooted in the importance of getting a job rather than an education. “I want to be a role model for the future generation,” he said. With an acceptance to his dream college in the bag, his plan for the rest of the year is to focus a little more on his social life. Maybe, he conceded, he didn’t spend enough time with his friends during his pursuit of academic excellence.
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Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Alexander Sigua Pintado was East Hampton High School's first Latino valedictorian. In fact, that distinction belongs to J. Sebastian Pineda in 2006.