Students Connect with the World During Commencement

Mostafa Abou-El Fetouh, a computer engineering major and 2012 graduate, pictured at the commencement ceremony.

Over the years Professor Angelo Perna, who has taught at NJIT for 45 years and rarely missed a graduation, has watched tens of thousands of students graduate from NJIT.  On this graduation day, seated high up in the Prudential Center, Perna looked down at the rows of graduates dressed in black robes and colored scarves. He declared that they looked like flowers.

“Wearing those beautifully colored academic scarves -- red and yellow, purple and blue, -- the graduates look like a bed of flowers in a garden,” said Perna. “And they are flowers in the sense that they're blooming into maturity.”

NJIT held its 2012 graduation ceremony at the Prudential Center on Tuesday, with 2,444 students receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees. NJIT conferred degrees on students from the six colleges of the university. NJIT also awarded honorary degrees to Mary Sue Sweeney Price, the Director and CEO of The Newark Museum, and to Javad Hassan, Chairman and CEO of the NeST Group of Companies. Hassan also gave the commencement address.

“I had two guiding principles that ruled my life, one being passion and the other perseverance,” said Hassan. “If you have a passion for your work and also possess persistence and perseverance you will succeed,” he said. “Take risks, never give up and work hard to overcome difficulties.”

NJIT President Joel Bloom, who presided over the ceremony and also spoke to the graduates, said that their training in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) makes them uniquely qualified for careers that will improve the quality of life in America.

“Your creative expertise in the STEM disciples will energize economic development and social progress,” said Bloom. “Some of you will lead innovation in sustainable energy or in computing technology, while others will lead in health care and the life sciences. Others graduating today will create the infrastructure vital for national and international prosperity. But whatever path you choose to follow, I know you will work to build a better world.”

For the NJIT graduates this was a day of high spirits, good cheer and in the end, relief.  NJIT is a rigorous university where students work hard for their degrees. As they sat at the ceremony listening to the commencement speakers and watching the procession of colleges retrieve their diplomas, many reminisced about the past and anticipated the future.

“It’s been a long four years and I’m really happy I’m done,” said Yusuf Rimawi, an environmental science major who has a job working for Quantech, an environmental company that’s cleaning the Passaic River. “Now it’s time for me to make a name for myself. NJIT gave me resilience, a quality that will help me throughout my life.”

Mona Taherisefat, a biomedical engineering major who in the fall will start a master’s degree in public health at UMDNJ, came to the ceremony with three words printed on her mortar board: “EAT, PRAY, STUDY.”  Those three words encapsulated her four years at NJIT, said Mona. “I had little time to sleep while a student, so I tried to EAT well," she explained. "I PRAYED for good grades and I spent endless hours in STUDY.”

Mostafa Abou-El Fetouh, a computer engineering major who worked as an intern for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, sat sending photos via his Blackberry to family members in the Philippines. They couldn’t fly in to see him graduate, so he wanted to send them visuals of the ceremony.  Asked to describe how it felt to be graduating, Mostafa alsoused three little words: “Finally, I’m done," he smiled.

Xiaojing Liu, a student from China who majored in engineering management, sat in her seat with her iPhone in her lap. She was messaging her parents back home in Beijing. They, too, couldn’t fly in to see her walk for her degree. So she sent photos to them along with this message: “I love you both so much and I’m coming back to see you soon.”  Xiaojing will return to Beijing in two weeks to start a job as a network engineer for China's Earthquake Netowrk Center. She left China to come to America to study at NJIT. She thought a degree from NJIT would make her more marketable. She was right.  "I'm very happy I studied at NJIT," she said, "because it has given me a better future."

NJIT attracts students from all over the world, which meant that parents flew in from all over the world to attend the cereomny. They came from Cameron, Nigeria, Senegal, India, China and Latin America. They sat in the ascending rows of the Prudential Center wearing clothing indigenous to their countries and touting video-cameras and cell phones. Some held signs with their child's name printed on them. Others shouted or whistled or blew horns when their child's name was called over the loud speakers. A jumbotron hovering over the arena floor where the graduates sat flashed images from the procession to the audience of some 10,000 people -- parents, grandparents, cousins and friends of the graduates. During lulls in the ceremony the 2,444 graduates, charged with emotion, would stand from their seats sequentially to form a human wave while shouting WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!  The audience cheered.  

Herman Blackman, age 95, was in the audience this day.  He graduated from the Newark College of Engineering with a degree in chemical engineering in 1938. He didn't have a grandchild in the procession. Rather, he came to the Prudential Center with a few of his friends, all NJIT alums, to see the ceremony. With perfect recall, Blackman said he enrolled at NCE in the midst of the Great Depression. Tuition then was $180 a year, which he paid in  $15 monthly installments. He worked his way through NCE, working nights in a college lab. He was paid 20 cents an hour.  

When Blackman graduated, the depression persisted and he had a hard time finding a job. It took a while, but he did find a job.Then during WWII he joined the Navy, after which he had a successful career as an engineer. He has fond memories of his NCE days and enjoys returning to see the students grraduate. He was amazed, he said, to learn about Paul Dupiano, a student graduating with four majors -- chemical engineering, electrical engineering, physics and math -- and 289 credits, more than twice the number of credits it takes to graduate. Overall, Blackman described the 2012 graduation ceremony as “amazing and wonderful.”

“It’s a tough economy now like it was when I graduated,” he said. “But these graduates are so smart that if they just persevere they’ll find good jobs."

Vanessa Jorge, a master's student who majored in transportation, already has a good job. She's a highway engineer for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. After she received her diploma, Vanessa immediately used her Blackberry to update her status on Facebook. She changed her status from student to graduate and wrote this message to friends: "Thank you everyone. I sit here in an itchy cap & gown ready to move on in life. No more tuition fees for me."

Monica Lago, an electrical engineering major, sat in a row with a lyric from the band Queen glued onto her mortar board: "We Are the Champions, My Friends." Asked why she chose to accessorize her cap with that lyric, Monica smiled triumphantly: "Because that's how we all feel today," she said, "like champions."  

(By Robert Florida)