“High school is really challenging for young people. You’re learning more about yourself and who you want to be,” said Yu. “I want young people to walk out of our school feeling more confident, feeling that they had a really indelible experience and that they were surrounded by an abundance of caring adults because that’s what I experienced, and that really was what set my trajectory. I think every young person needs that, particularly in this day and age where there’s so many things to be cynical, skeptical, pessimistic, and angry about.”
Nearly three decades later, Yu is now principal of Stuyvesant High School and a doctoral candidate in educational leadership, administration, and policy at Fordham’s Graduate School of Education.
A Korean-American High School Star
Yu’s journey as an educator began at home.
“My parents and family have always emphasized education and the belief that it could propel you into things that you want to do,” said Yu, who immigrated to North Carolina with his parents and three older sisters from South Korea when he was an infant. But it wasn’t until high school that he solidified his goal of being an educator.
“I was surrounded by caring adults who wanted the best for me, who often expected and demanded more of myself than I did … That led to me having some really wonderful experiences that have served as a springboard to not only my professional career, but as an individual,” said Yu, who served as student body president of his high school and a quarterback on the school football team that won the state championship in his senior year. “That is something I feel fortunate that I got to experience, and I think all young people need that.”
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English literature from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and master’s degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University, and Baruch College. He served in various roles in education, including as English teacher at the High School of Telecommunications Arts and Technology in Brooklyn; the founding principal of the Academy for Software Engineering in Manhattan, a career and technical education high school that opened in 2012; and senior executive director at the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness, where he learned more about policymaking. This past August, he was selected to lead Stuyvesant High School as its new principal.
Leading An Elite New York City School in a Pandemic
Yu is now tasked with one of the biggest challenges of his career: leading one of New York’s top high schools in a pandemic. He said that Stuyvesant, which has received nationwide recognition for its reputation in science, technology, engineering, and math as well as its notable alumni, has many highly motivated and talented students. However, he’s deeply concerned about their social and emotional well-being, especially in a remote setting.
“How do you maintain that level of expectation and drive in a remote world where there is an abundance of screen time?” said Yu, adding that most students have chosen to study 100% remotely, but are still suffering from computer fatigue. “This has definitely been the biggest challenge, particularly at Stuyvesant, where expectations around academics are really high.”
To better understand the additional support that students need, Yu and his team have been relying on input from the school community, especially parents and guidance counselors, he said. They have also been trying to build more community through online platforms like Flipgrid and emails with encouraging messages.
An Inaugural Student Under Fordham’s Revamped Ed.D.
Yu said his future decisions at Stuyvesant potentially will be guided in part by his Fordham education.
Two years ago, he joined the first cohort of Fordham’s Graduate School of Education’s revamped doctorate of education, which emphasizes practice-based work that can help leaders transform their school communities. Yu said he was attracted to the program’s focus on improvement science.
“The [NYC] Department of Education has been focused on continuous improvement, and so when I heard that at a Fordham open house, it sparked an interest and a desire to really bring theory and practice together,” Yu said.
He said his coursework at Fordham has helped him think about coherence and consistency in an organization, in addition to potential new policies at Stuyvesant. But ultimately, he said he hopes to make a difference in the next generation of young lives, from his two daughters—a kindergartener and a second grader—to the students at Stuyvesant.
“I want to make sure that young people have a great experience, and I am flattered and privileged to be at Stuyvesant High School and the reputation that this school holds,” Yu said. “But ultimately, I want to continue to create a great school, a great learning environment for young people, and I want to know that we added value to their experiences and to their lives.”