Graduate Alain Joseph is happy: He has a degree and job lined up working for Dow Chemical.
For many of the begowned graduates, it was the happiest day of their lives.
It was the culmination of years of study, self-denial and perseverance. It was the day on which they received their diplomas -- their passports to success, social mobility and brighter futures.
And it was a day, in the end, to make their parents proud.
Mimose Joseph traveled from Haiti to Newark watch her son, Alain Joseph, (pictured right) graduate from NJIT. And when he walked onto the stage to receive his degree; when his name was called on the loud-speaker and his face flashed on the video screen, she wept tears of elation.
“It was a long trip from Port-au-Prince but I had to see Alain,” said Mimose. “He worked so hard to get this degree. I’m so proud of him.”
Alain was one of 2,643 students to collect a degree during NJIT’s 2013 commencement ceremony, held Monday at the Prudential Center in Newark. The university also gave three honorary degrees: one to Edward Cruz, a 1963 Newark College of Engineering graduate and Principal of Hop Brook Properties; one to Ellen Pawlikowski, a 1978 NJIT graduate who is Lieutenant General and Commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center; and another to Carlos Dominguez, a Senior Vice President for Cisco Systems, Inc. Dominguez, a technology evangelist, also gave the commencement address.
Dominguez is an inspiring speaker who gives speeches around the world. But preparing for the commencement address, he said, made him anxious. For until this day he never received a college degree.
“I never graduated from college – life got in the way and I regret it,” he said. “Receiving this honorary degree is the closest I’ve come to graduating from college.”
He then recounted how he, though degree-less, nevertheless secured a top job at Cisco – a job he loves. He talked about how his parents left Cuba in 1962 and started their lives over again in America.
“It was difficult for my parents to leave their homeland,” he said, “because they suspected they’d never see their families again. And they never did.”
He described how hard his parents worked to establish a footing in America, a footing that allowed him to excel in his career.
During his travels, he meets students from all over the world, and the students always ask him the same two questions, he said: “How much money do you make,” and “What made you successful?” Dominguez’s answer to them is thus:
“To succeed, you must be a lifelong learner,” he tells the students. “You must be humble and kind, you must find your passion in life and you must believe that all is possible.”
NJIT President Joel Bloom, who presided over the ceremony and also spoke to the graduates, recounted some of the highlights of the academic year. He cited the teams of civil engineering students who won steel bridge and concrete canoe competitions. Bloom mentioned the student teams who not only won awards for their research but also received funding to further their research. He told the students they were getting smarter. When he arrived at NJIT 23 years ago, he said, four students graduated with perfect grade-point averages. This year, however, there were 20 graduates with 4.0s.
The class of 2013, Bloom added, is not only bright but compassionate. Their community service projects – 20,000 hours in total – helped a village in Haiti get clean drinking water. And many of the graduates sacrificed their spring break to help towns and businesses recover from the ill effects of Hurricane Sandy.
“You did all that,” said Bloom, “and whatever path you follow after this day I know that each of you will aspire to build a better world. You will do so professionally through the application of skills and knowledge you have gained in the classrooms and laboratories of a great university.”
Bloom’s advice to the class was also threefold.
“Act with integrity,” he said, “work hard while maintaining high standards, and always remember to help those who come behind you.”
A New Start: Great Jobs
For the NJIT graduates, this day was both a beginning and an end. It was the end of their academic careers but the beginning of their professional careers. An NJIT degree has clout, and many of the 2013 graduates already have great jobs line up.
Alain Joseph, for example, the student whose mother came to commencement from Haiti, has a job working for Dow Chemical’s Agro Science division. While a student, he worked two internships at JP Morgan Chase. It was that experience that helped him get the offer from Dow.
“Today is the greatest feeling in my life,” said Alain. “I’m ready to use the skills I learned at NJIT to succeed in my new job and move to the next level. So many people at NJIT helped me with guidance and advice. I’m so grateful to them.”
And consider graduate Theo Blount, who in a few weeks will begin working for Boeing. He’ll work in Boeing’s Flight Control unit and be part of its Information Technology Career Foundation Program. At the same time, he’ll work on his Ph.D. in information systems at NJIT.
“This ceremony is amazing, I’m just so happy,” said Theo. “My NJIT education is the platform that will allow me to take on the real world and be successful in whatever I do.”
A few rows away from Theo sat Nkem Okoye, who in August will start work as a business technology analyst for Morgan Stanley’s Private Wealth Management Division. She left her home and family in Nigeria to study information systems at NJIIT. At first, it was lonely living on her own in New Jersey, but on this day, she was jubilant.
“The opportunities at NJIT are endless and I learned so much and grew intellectually and socially,” she said.
And though she left her family to attend NJIT; her family came to NJIT’s Commencement to see her graduate. It all came around full circle for them. Her father, Paul Okoye, a retired mechanical engineer who worked in Nigeria’s petroleum industry, said he was “very, very proud of my daughter.”
“Nkem graduated with first honors,” he said, “and we wanted to see her. She’s always had our support and she is going to do great things in life.”
Grads Headed to Graduate School
Other 2013 graduates are headed to top graduate schools. Jonathan Daudelin won a full scholarship to Cornell University, where he’ll pursue a doctorate in mechanical engineering. His older brother, David, was due to get his master’s degree in Computer Science. But he couldn’t attend the ceremony. That’s because he already started a great job at AT&T in Middleton, N.J., where he is being groomed to be a manager.
Jonathan’s parents and seven of his siblings came to see him graduate. And as they sat in the arena watching the ceremony, the Daudelin family beamed with pride.
“We are just thankful for Jonathan’s accomplishments,” said Vicky Daudelin, his mother. “He’s done some amazing things at NJIT. It’s just been a wonderful blessing for him.”
Jonathan’s younger sister, Elizabeth, described her brother as “incredible.”
“He’s good at everything he does,” she added, “he’s a good brother and he’s fun.”
Andrew Deek, a biology major who graduated with a 4.0 after just three years, is headed to Columbia University’s College of Dental Medicine. He intends to be an orthodontist. Andrew’s family also came to see him walk onto the stage. His older brother, Matthew, graduated from NJIT in 2011 and just finished his second year of medical school. Matthew came with his mother, Maura, and his younger sister, Rebecca, who will enter NJIT in the fall as a freshman.
“We are very proud of Andrew,” said Andrew’s mother, Maura. “He showed his true colors and worked very hard at NJIT.”
Making Grandparents and Parents Proud
Navanjot Ahluwalia will soon begin work as a designer for New York City’s Department of Design and Construction. On this day she received a master’s degree in civil engineering. And her grandparents came all the way from India to see her graduate. After the ceremony, they stood outside the arena posing for photos with their granddaughter, of whom they are supremely proud. Navanjot is the oldest granddaughter and in the first in the family to graduate from an American university, they said.
Neither of her grandparents spoke English fluently, but her grandfather did manage to say: “We are too much proud of her. It is dream come true.”
And with the help of a translator her grandmother said: "Look at my body. Can you see how it is expanding with pride?”
One graduate had a special distinction on this special day. Vanessa Casteblanco graduated with a host of honors and has a great job working as a field engineer. But she also had the distinction of being the student speaker for the ceremony. And during her speech, Vanessa thanked her parents for “always being there for me.”
Years ago, her parents emigrated from Colombia. Both worked two and sometimes three blue-collar jobs to improve their plight. Both now have good jobs – her father is a graphic artist and her mother is a technician for a healthcare company. And Vanessa’s academic success has validated and justified their earlier struggles and hardships.
“Her achievements make us feel that all our hard work paid off in the end,” said Hector Casteblanco, Vanessa’s father. “It’s the happiest day of my life. I’m in heaven.”
Vanessa’s mother, Claudia said the day overwhelmed her. Seeing her daughter up on the stage, at the podium, addressing the thousands of begowned students arrayed before her; hearing Vanessa’s voice boom over the loud-speaker and throughout the arena; then seeing her walk back onto the stage to get her diploma -- it was all too much for her.
“Watching Vanessa today,” said Claudia, “broke my heart with happiness.”
(By Robert Florida)