This year’s valedictorians and salutatorians in Bethpage and Hicksville high schools have a lot in common.

The four are all 17. They are children of immigrants. They plan to study mechanical or aerospace engineering in college. And they are sharing top honors with their twin.

“It's very special to have that honor together,” said Ruchitha Channapatna, the salutatorian at Bethpage High School, where her twin sister, Suchitha, is the valedictorian.

“We fight like siblings do, but we've always been each other's best friend and each other's cheerleader,” she said. “To see the other person succeed was the most special thing to me because … I don't know anyone else who deserves [it] as much.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Twins in Bethpage and Hicksville high schools are valedictorians and salutatorians in their graduating class, marking a first in recent memory at the schools.
  • They are Suchitha and Ruchitha Channapatna in Bethpage and Sam and Sean Zhen in Hicksville.
  • The 17-year-olds will attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University to study engineering.

Identical twins Sam and Sean Zhen are the valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively, at Hicksville High School.

To have twins graduate with such competitive academic achievement is so rare that administrators and teachers at the two high schools said they don’t recall it happening in recent memory.

“We've had plenty of sets of twins. We had a set of triplets a couple of years ago. I think it's very rare for them to both, although very different, very similarly driven academically, have that much success,” said Nicholas Jantz, principal of Bethpage High School.

Their academic excellence is rooted in discipline but also in a love for learning, the teenagers and those who know them said. They like to solve problems and create things.

“I've always been interested in learning new things, especially [in] math and science,” Suchitha said.

“With math, you're always pulling in knowledge from previous years,” she said. “It's like a puzzle. Do I actually remember what I learned a long time ago? And when you do, it’s this really satisfying feeling.”

Suchitha and Ruchitha Channapatna

Suchitha Channapatna, left, is the valedictorian at Bethpage High School. Her...

Suchitha Channapatna, left, is the valedictorian at Bethpage High School. Her twin, Ruchitha Channapatna, is the salutatorian, “It's very special to have that honor together,” Ruchitha said. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Suchitha’s interest in space exploration started inside a room at Bethpage Public Library, where she randomly read a children's book about the solar system when she was in second grade.

“Then I was reading every book in the series,” she said. “I was like, ‘I want to do this. I want go visit those planets.’ ”

At first, she wanted to be an astronaut. Later, an astronomer. Her perspective changed again after she joined the high school’s robotics team and discovered engineering. She’s weighing aerospace engineering with mechanical engineering, what her sister will be studying at the same university she will be attending — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Suchitha said she wants to reduce the harmful environmental impact of space exploration.

Suchitha Channapatna

  • Valedictorian of the senior class of about 225 students at Bethpage High School
  • GPA: 110.91
  • College: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Languages she speaks: English, Kannada and Sanskrit
  • Musical interests: violin, flute and classical Indian music

“Putting things into space, like space junk, is something I want to avoid,” she said. “I want to do research in college in the aerospace field on how to reduce pollution and its impacts on the environment.”

That goal aligned with what her mother observed since Suchitha was a preschooler playing with toys with her sister.

“They didn't want to waste anything, so they used to play with the boxes of the toys, too,” said their mother, Sumana Channapatna. “I used to joke with my husband that we don't need to buy them many toys. We just need to buy them empty boxes.”

Ruchitha, when she was little, wanted to become a writer or musician. She was a bubbly, creative child who liked to go with the flow. She later developed an interest in medicine that evolved into engineering after she joined the same high school robotics team. 

Ruchitha Channapatna

  • Salutatorian of the graduating class at Bethpage High School
  • GPA: 110.44
  • College: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Languages she speaks: English, Kannada and Sanskrit
  • Musical interests: violin, flute and classical Indian music

There, Ruchitha said, she found a community where she felt comfortable to “nerd out.”

“I think a lot of people sometimes are afraid to be comfortable with being academic,” she said. “I found this as a community where we got to nerd out together and just connect over [our] passion for learning more.”

When visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Ruchitha felt a similar vibe on campus.

“On the walls, there were so many math puns and so many science puns,” she said. “I felt like the most sense of belonging at MIT when I visited.” Of the culture there, she said, “you get to embrace your nerdiness but not in a stereotypical way.”

Sumana has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from India, and her husband, Raj, a master’s degree in computer science from The City College of New York. The couple emigrated from Bangalore, India. But she said their daughters were naturally drawn to math and science without their pushing.

“We just said, do your best and be interested in what you want to learn,” she said. “Be honest and genuine about it.”

The sisters said they don’t compete with one another but push each other to do better.

“We are never trying to beat the other person,” Suchitha said.

They spend a lot of time together and share the same hobbies: violin, flute and singing classical Indian music. They said they are excited to spend four more years together.

“We complement each other a lot. So that was always fun growing up, having a built-in best friend,” Suchitha said. “Knowing that I have someone to lean on if things get hard, that was very helpful, very reassuring.”

Sam and Sean Zhen

Hicksville High School valedictorian Sam Zhen, left, and his brother...

Hicksville High School valedictorian Sam Zhen, left, and his brother Sean, the salutatorian. In middle school, Sean was the valedictorian and Sam the salutatorian. “It's very funny that we did it again,” Sean said. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

In middle school, Sean was the valedictorian and Sam the salutatorian. This time around, the roles are reversed.

“It's very funny that we did it again,” Sean said of earning the top honors. “We always like to push each other to do our best because we compete with each other. … Sometimes it gets a little intense, but it's mostly friendly.”

The two brothers will attend Cornell University in upstate Ithaca. Sam will study mechanical engineering and Sean, aerospace engineering.

Sean Zhen

  • Salutatorian of the graduating class at Hicksville High School
  • GPA: 103.62
  • College: Cornell University
  • Languages he speaks: English and Mandarin
  • Hobbies: biking and playing badminton

Sean said he became fascinated by planes after seeing them when flying during family vacations. He remembered thinking, “How does this big body of metal fly in the sky?”

“I just got hooked,” he said.

Both brothers belong to the school’s robotics team and have liked building things since they were little.

“As a kid, I always liked building stuff. Legos always excited me,” Sam said. “It's almost like to see my creations come to life.” 

Sam Zhen

  • Valedictorian of the senior class of 447 students at Hicksville High School
  • GPA: 103.83
  • College: Cornell University
  • Languages he speaks: English and Mandarin
  • Hobbies: biking and playing badminton

Their teachers in Hicksville said the brothers were disciplined and consistent throughout the years they knew them.

“They're steady. They're going to do the right thing. They're very driven,” said Veronica Velez, a guidance counselor at Hicksville High School. “These are not typical qualities that teenagers always have — being very capable and always making the right decisions.”

Velez said the brothers also are caring. When a friend of theirs got hurt and had to walk with crutches, they helped carry his bags. One day, she noticed a seemingly small but revealing act.

“[The friend] was sitting in the chair. And then when he got up, they actually pushed the chair back in so that no one else would trip on it,” Velez recalled. “Most teenagers wouldn't even notice that there was a chair out.”

The twins’ parents took little credit in their academic excellence other than being supportive.

Kevin Zhen, who immigrated to the United States when he was 18, said he could offer his two sons little guidance beyond elementary schoolwork. He went to high school for a year in China and studied two more years of high school in the United States. His wife, Miki, who's from Taiwan, never went to college, either.

“I couldn’t help them with anything academically,” Kevin said in Mandarin. “They are very self-reliant when it comes to school.”

The brothers, who “almost did everything together,” said they are curious to see how they could grow together. They plan to be roommates as freshmen at Cornell.

“It’s exciting to see that we're going to be together for four more years, to see how we can help each other expand our skills and to see where we both end up in the future,” Sam said.

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