Feature Stories

Pancakes and a Smile: NJIT President and Staff Welcomes Students Back to School

NJIT welcomes students back to school.

As he stands outside in the sun serving breakfast to anxious students, one NJIT dean is heard to say: “Eating pancakes has been shown to improve your calculus scores. So by all means, eat up.”

The students don’t need the dean’s wry inducement, for most of them are already poised to devour heaping plates of pancakes. It’s the first day of classes at NJIT, which is marked annually with a pancake breakfast. The free breakfast, served outside on the campus green from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., gives deans and staff members, and especially President Robert Altenkirch, a chance to welcome students back to school.

As students sit at the tables that line the terrace, Altenkirch walks from group to group, introducing himself. He asks the students about their majors, their hometowns, whether they commute or live on campus, and why they decided to come to NJIT. He loosens them up, eases their back-to-college butterflies and wishes them good luck. Many of the students he happens upon this day are freshmen, and some are surprised by Altenkirch’s casual style and approachability. He introduces himself, for instance, not as President Altenkirch; but rather as “Bob Altenkirch, or even more humbly, as “Bob.”

David Wendt, architecture major, is so disarmed by Altenkirch’s affability that for a moment he can’t answer the president’s first question to him, which is simply thus: “Hi, what year are you in?”

Wendt, a freshman, later concedes that being approached by Altenkirch caused him, momentarily, to forget what year he is in. “I guess I didn’t expect to be greeted like that from the college president,” Wendt explains. “He was so nice and so friendly.”

Wendt says his goal for the first semester of his college career is a modest one: “Not to fall behind with my school work.” His table mate, however, Paul Mraz, also a freshman majoring in architecture, cites a loftier goal. “I’m gunning for straight A’s.” But after a moment’s reflection, Mraz qualifies that utterance: “But I hear NJIT is really hard, especially architecture,” he admits. “So I’ll be happy just to get through.”

Dan Chelchowski, a friend from high school, joins the two at their table. He, too, is architecture major, but he is a sophomore. Yes, architecture is a demanding major, he says -- “sometimes we archies don’t sleep” – but “I love it. I love to design.”

Wendt and Mraz number among 811 freshmen to arrive this fall at NJIT. And their major – architecture – is this year’s most popular, followed by mechanical engineering, civil engineering, computer science and biomedical engineering. The freshmen are from 14 states -- most of course coming from New Jersey -- and from foreign countries such as Jamaica, Turkey, India, Kenya and China. The average SAT score for freshmen ranges between 1,040 and 1,220.

The freshmen enter NJIT at a time when the university is stronger than ever.

For the second consecutive year, US News & World Report named NJIT to the top tier of the nation’s research universities. And in the Princeton Review’s new best college book, NJIT ranks among the top colleges in the nation.

As 10 a.m. nears and the breakfast draws to a close, the staff begins breaking down the service tables. But as they do, the students continue to mingle along the green. Some stride off to their first classes, grasping new notebooks at their sides – their backpacks slung overt heir shoulders. Others sit in the sun, talking. Some walk alone, talking on cell phones. The upperclassmen seem at ease, joking and laughing. The freshmen are more subdued.

One freshman, Dan Cron, mentions the fleeting butterflies that most if not all freshmen feel on the first day. “Yes, I’m a little bit nervous,” he says, his eyes aimed at the ground. “It’s hard to figure college out. At first, you don’t know what to do. But I made a good friend during miniversity and I like my major – biology. So I’m excited for school to begin.”

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)