By Laura Barlament
Photographs by Pete Byron
Every morning at 6:10 sharp, a white 11-passenger van rumbles away from its starting point next to Parker Hall and out to Howard Avenue. It takes a right, and continues to Victory Boulevard and down the big hill, Manhattan’s skyline gleaming on the horizon.
It’s the first run of the day for the Wagner College ferry shuttle service. Every day of the year except for Easter, Christmas, and New Year’s, the Wagner vans make two trips per hour between the campus and the Staten Island ferry terminal — from whence the famous orange ferry boats connect to Manhattan. The day ends at 1:10 a.m., with the last run from ferry to campus.
Launched a dozen years ago, the ferry shuttle service has blossomed into an essential part of life at Wagner College, strengthening the College’s connection to the entire New York City metro area.
“The ferry shuttle has turned out to be a major part of what we offer students and faculty,” says Miles Groth, professor of psychology, who has been teaching at Wagner for 24 years, commuting via public transportation from his home in Manhattan.
On Thursday, September 28, photographer Pete Byron and I spent 12 hours taking the shuttle, collecting stories of the people along the way. The result: a portrait of Wagner College life in its connection to greater New York.
7:40 a.m., A Young Alum Going to Work
Devon Flint ’17 graduated in May and lives in a house near campus. His roommates are Wagner students in their final year in the physician assistant master’s program. They have an intense schedule, and so does he. He’s friendly but not very talkative.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “This is just usually my most miserable time of the day. … Thinking about work till I get there. I have a lot of things to do.”
Flint works as a video editor with an advertising agency in Manhattan. He started this commute eight months ago, as a senior arts administration major. His internship turned into a full-time position. Despite the long hours and long commute, he likes the job. “It’s cool, it’s really interesting stuff. It’s just stressful. Everything’s got a deadline.”
He has continued coming to campus to take the Wagner ferry shuttle even after graduation, since he lives nearby and knows it’s completely reliable. This upstate New York kid has become a real city commuter.
9:10 a.m., A Professor Begins His Day
For Dane Stalcup, assistant professor of modern languages, literature, and culture, the first class of today is Introduction to French Translation. His students are working on Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, about his youthful expatriate years as an apprentice writer in Paris. For anyone interested in literature, riding the shuttle van with Dane Stalcup is an invitation to that bounteous table.
We talk about Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas. We talk about Stalcup’s favorite writers, Karen Blixen in English and Balzac in French. We talk about the fantastical 19th-century German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann.
Stalcup lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Typically, he says, “the ferry is for grading or social media, and so is the van. Or emails.” His favorite part of his commute, however, is the 20-minute ride on a CitiBike (NYC’s bike share system) from his apartment to the ferry terminal. “It’s a scenic route along the river by Chinatown and under the bridges,” where he passes groups practicing tai chi in the morning. And, he reflects, “I like the boat. The morning’s always nice. In the evenings sometimes I have ice cream, or Pat Moynagh [professor of government and politics] and I have a beer.”
Some people just know how to turn life into a moveable feast.
9:40 a.m., Interns Behind the Scenes of the Entertainment Industry
Elise Begg’s long hair is still wet. She has been up since 5 a.m. Her day started with team practice — water polo is what brought this Southern Californian to Wagner. She finished her workout, took a shower, and got dressed for work as a rights management intern at The Orchard, a music, film, and video distribution company. It’s her senior year as a business marketing major.
Her schedule is tight, but she is not fazed by it. “Yeah, it just takes a lot of planning. The company I work with is pretty flexible with my hours. I work 9:40 to 4:30 on Tuesdays, and then 11 to 6 on Thursdays, and 12 to 6 on Fridays. I cram all of my classes into Mondays and Wednesdays. I’m up from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, out of the room.”
To be efficient, she’s productive on her commute. “Recently, I’ve been using it to work on my senior thesis paper. I wrote my abstract on the shuttle the other day.”
Meghan Gunther ’19, an arts administration major, is going to an internship as well. She’s working at a casting company, not for credit, but for the experience.
“We do TV shows and Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. We just bring people in every day and have them audition. It’s fun. I schedule actors and I bring them in, and I watch them audition. And I make comments. Obviously, I don’t have a lot of say in who gets picked, but I get to comment, and I get to experience the audition process professionally, which is cool. I’m kind of the liaison between the casting directors and the actors.”
Interlude: The Drivers
George Pepio, who retired from Wagner in January 2017, was the first shuttle driver and manager. In conjunction with then-Chief of Staff David Martin and then-Public Safety Director Tony Martinesi, Pepio created the ferry shuttle service in 2004–05. They established a safe, reliable system that became highly successful; in 2016, the ferry shuttle transported 117,380 passengers.
The drivers are key to the service’s success. Most of the three dozen or so drivers on the roster are, like Pepio, retirees from government agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the New York City Department of Sanitation, and the U.S. Postal Service. Seasoned professionals, they enjoy the job and know how to handle any conflicts that arise.
They also care deeply about the students. Pepio, an MTA Bridges and Tunnels retiree, took on the ferry shuttle program with great personal engagement. “I enjoyed the students in the early years,” he recalls. “I saw the freshman class, and they graduated four years later. You see them grow up. I felt like the eyes of their parents.”
In addition to the ferry shuttle, Wagner has expanded its transportation services to supporting students’ work in Port Richmond and other community placements in Staten Island.
11:40 a.m., A City Researcher and a Theater Junkie
Quincy Rasin ’18, a North Carolina native majoring in public policy and administration, is headed to his senior internship with the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, in Lower Manhattan. Serving more than 400,000 people in 326 public housing developments, it is the nation’s largest agency of this type.
At the same time, Rasin is working on a senior thesis about gentrification and the displacement of low-income residents in Central Harlem.
“Tonight for my internship, they are taking me to a town hall meeting,” he says. “There are new zoning laws that are happening, and there’s going to be a town hall tonight about what that may entail. I already developed some surveys that I hope to get filled out, collect some primary data. So, today’s going to be a long day.”
How does he use his commute? “I listen to music and read for my thesis or for my classes. I was reading [Robert Caro’s] The Power Broker for fun, but my class reading has interfered with that. That’s a very big book. It’s about Robert Moses, the man who built the city.”
His fellow student commuter, Olivia Bishop ’19, a theater studies major from Pennsylvania, is departing for her part-time job as a page at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. “They have a lot of materials about theater in New York,” she says. “To be exposed and to be around theater stuff all the time is really nice. A lot of the materials that I need for school are there, too.”
Bishop, who wants to be a director someday, believes in the power of theater to “tell the stories that people aren’t aware of.” She has recently enjoyed such Off-Off-Broadway productions as a two-person silent version of Macbeth and a one-act about death row inmates. “However, I am very excited for SpongeBob SquarePants, the musical,” she adds. “I’m interested in seeing everything.”
2:40 p.m., Long Hours and Long Commutes
It’s like a faculty meeting on this trip, with six professors representing six different departments: psychology, English, philosophy, art, sociology, and music.
Bernadette Ludwig, assistant professor of sociology, says that it is unusual for her to be leaving campus this early.
What’s been keeping her so busy? This semester, Ludwig co-teaches a First-Year Learning Community and supervises her students’ community hours. She also teaches a sociology course on gender. She has been staying late to help with “a modified version of the ‘Clothesline Project,’” which is a nationwide domestic violence awareness initiative. The Wagner Clothesline Project will “draw attention to domestic violence that goes against all different genders and not just women,” she explains. Several student groups and faculty are collaborating on this effort, which will culminate in displays of T-shirts decorated with stories contributed by the Wagner community. Plus, Ludwig has a close connection to the Liberian immigrant community in Staten Island, and she’s returning to campus on Saturday so that she can take students to the annual Liberian cultural festival.
Coming to campus is a considerable time investment, as she lives in Harlem. During her two-hour commute, she says, “I listen to the NPR app. I grade. And sometimes I take a nap on the ferry.”
At the mention of a nap, philosophy professor John Danisi breaks in with his commuter sleeping story: He rides the 1 train every day at 6 a.m., from 242nd Street in the Bronx to South Ferry. He always rides in the first car. For a time, he and three other men, construction workers going to Lower Manhattan, would all nod off during the one-hour ride. When they were approaching South Ferry, Danisi adds, “The engineer would wake us up.”
Interlude: Ferry Shuttle By the Numbers
Total Ridership, 2016:
Busiest Month, 2017:
September (15,099 riders)
Busiest Day, 2017:
April 27 (1,042 riders)
Trips Per Day:
Maximum Ridership Capacity, Per Day:
*During the fall and spring semesters.
4:40 p.m., Three Friends Exploring the City
An international trio of women’s water polo team members — two freshmen and a sophomore — are headed to Union Square for a dinner-and-a-movie outing.
They know they want to see the movie Friend Request, but all other details are up in the air.
“It’s been like a long, hard week,” says Millie Pullybank ’20, of Melbourne, Australia. “So I personally just wanted to get off campus.”
“We’ll probably get lost,” says Katie Campbell ’21, of Saskatchewan, Canada, after a discussion of which train it is, exactly, that goes to Union Square. “Learning the subway is so hard. When my mom comes, she says, ‘You’re going to show me.’ And I’m like, ‘Nope.’”
As they find their way in college and city, the ferry shuttle frequently figures into their plans. Campbell has been visiting museums. “Sometimes I go for Starbucks,” adds Serena Thurman ’21, of San Diego, and everyone laughs. “Yeah, ’cause it’s right off the ferry. Wagner Starbucks just doesn’t taste real.”
Pullybank arrived here in January of this year as a transfer student and already feels comfortable taking the subway by herself. “It would be a shame if I just stayed on campus,” she says. “I’m so far from home, and I might as well actually experience it over here.”
6:10 p.m., A First-Year Student Commuter from Staten Island
Daria Mignola ’21 is taking the ferry shuttle not to catch the boat to Manhattan, but to connect with the Staten Island Railway, which ends at the St. George ferry terminal. She commutes to the campus from Prince’s Bay, on the South Shore of Staten Island, via the railway and the ferry shuttle.
She often times her trip home, like today, to meet her mother, who is coming home from work in Manhattan. Daria is the daughter of Lora Giacomoni-Mignola ’85, assistant vice president for quality, risk, and patient safety at the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation; and Brian Mignola ’84, a Staten Island family practice doctor.
As a Staten Islander and the daughter of two alumni, Mignola has known about Wagner all of her life. Now, she is discovering it for herself.
“I’m the first person awake every morning in my house,” she says. “I love to go to school.”
She’s taking Learning Community 14: Society and the City, which is allowing her to explore more of her hometown than she ever had before through field trips and guest lectures. She’s also enjoying Foundations of Music Theory and learning more instruments — she already sings and plays the trumpet. For her major, she’s considering biology and the pre-veterinary curriculum. She’s making great new friends, going out to Manhattan with them, connecting with fellow student commuters, and looking into joining various student organizations — the Art Club, WCBG radio, and a sorority (when she’s eligible next semester).
“Even though I’m a commuter, I’m barely home now,” she notes. But she still looks forward to the train ride to Prince’s Bay with her mother and the chance to talk over everything she’s experiencing.
6:40 p.m., Completing a Quick Errand and a Long Day at the Lab
Adam Williams ’20 is returning to campus from a quick trip to Manhattan to acquire a specific item needed for Kappa rush. “I had the task of purchasing three bandannas,” he says. “I tried to get bandannas last night, and I couldn’t, so I took the ferry shuttle to go to Michael’s on 22nd Street to get these bandannas. So today was a pretty quick errand.
“Mission accomplished. Very efficient,” he concludes.
Williams goes to Manhattan frequently, four or five times per week, to visit friends. He’s a business marketing major from Portland, Oregon, who wants to go into the fashion industry. “That’s what drew me to New York, the fashion industry.”
Brandon Hart ’17 M’19 is also a frequent Manhattan commuter. He’s ending a long day, spent at Rockefeller University. At this biomedical research institution in Manhattan, Hart is working in the Laboratory of Bacterial Pathogenesis and Immunology, headed by Vincent Fischetti ’62 H’10.
Hart completed his bachelor’s degree in microbiology in May, and is continuing his studies in Wagner’s microbiology master’s program as well as in a two-year fellowship at Rockefeller. He spends at least 20 hours a week at the fellowship, traveling there three days a week. He also works 20 hours per week as a graduate assistant in Wagner’s Center for Leadership and Community Engagement.
It may be a lot, but he’s doing what he loves to do. Fischetti’s lab focuses on developing novel antibiotics to address the problem of drug-resistant infections. Hart is contributing to that effort.
“I’m working on a specific part of the project, which is awesome, and I have some autonomy,” he says. “So, that’s really cool. I love it.”
“‘I’ll sleep eventually’ is my motto,” he notes with a smile.