Feature Stories

This Graduate Won a Presidential Scholarship to Princeton

Alex Salazar, a civil engineering major, excelled at NJIT and won a Presidential Fellowship to attend Princeton University.

When he was 19, Alexander Salazar left Colombia, his homeland, for America. He loved Colombia but wanted to pursue his dream: to attend a U.S. university and one day earn an engineering degree.      

For his first seven years in America, though, Alexander worked in a factory in Passaic, assembling windows and doors. It was a humble working-class job: it paid $6 a hour, yet he didn’t despair. Rather, while he worked he taught himself English. In his free time, he read grammar books and watched educational TV shows.

When he had enough money saved, he enrolled at Bergen Community College. He majored in engineering science.  Having a logical mind and a strong work ethic, he aced all his classes. His dream of attaining an engineering degree was beginning to materialize.

Growing up in Colombia, his dream was to become a builder of vast bridges and soaring skyscrapers. He attended a good Colombian elementary school and excelled in math and science. But early on in life, a stroke of bad luck befell him. When he was 3 years old, his parents divorced; his mother abandoned the family; his father died when he was 10. At times, Alex almost gave up.

"There were times in my past when I was frustrated," says Alex. "I couldn't visualize my future. But for some reason, I have this motivation inside of me."

After his mother left and his father died, Alex lived in Colombia with an aunt and uncle. He traveled to America first as a tourist, then lived with relatives in Passaic and became a U.S. resident.

While studying at Bergen Community, he heard about NJIT; that it had a great civil engineering department. So after his first year,  he transferred to NJIT and majored in civil engineering.  He loved the classes, the university and most of all his professors. “My professors were amazing,” says Alexander. “They taught me all I know but also recommended me for scholarships and internships. I’m so grateful.”

“Only yesterday he was a little boy,” said Williams, looking out over the rows of graduates arrayed in their black gowns and caps. “But now he’s a man. Now he’s turning the tassel. Now the future opens up for him.”

The Funny Hats

Caps and gowns make graduates all look alike.  But some NJIT grads called upon their design and engineering skills to distinguish themselves by festooning their caps with clever phrases. There were dozens of funny hats but here are a few examples:

“Oh The Places You’ll Go…Next Stop Charlotte! (This graduate will be attending law school in Charlotte).

Several of the hats gave thanks to the students’ beneficiaries, i.e., their parents:

“Thanks Mom & Dad” and “mama I made it!” and “I Love You Mom and Dad,” were just three examples of the genre.

Some hats expressed optimism, “She Believed She Could, So She Did,” others expressed wry humor: “It’s About Time,” while still another issued an irony: “That Was Easy, Said No One 2014.”

The Kindly Professor

Angelo Perna, a long-time professor at NJIT, has attended 47 graduation ceremonies. He always comes to the ceremonies early and sits in the top row, so he can peer down and see the graduates in all their robed splendor, their many-colored scarves – red and yellow, purple and blue – making them look, to his eyes, like flora.  

“Wearing those colored stoles makes the graduates look like beds of flowers,” said Perna, a professor of chemical engineering.  “And they are flowers -- they are blooming into maturity. They are ready for the challenges of the real world. I know they are because I taught them, thousands of them over the last 47 years. It’s a great day, perfect weather, and now I look forward to next year’s graduation,” he added, smiling widely as he walked out of the arena and into the sunlight of a perfect day.  

The Student

It took Chris Sam seven years to graduate from NJIT. He switched majors a few times but found his groove in Industrial Engineering.  Last summer he did an internship at Cisco. He did so well in the internship that Cisco offered him a full-time job, which he’ll start this summer. He’ll work as a program manager in Cisco’s supply chain unit. He can’t wait to move to San  Jose and start the next phase of his life. Asked how he felt to finally be graduating from NJIT, he offered this:

“It feels good to complete one goal but now I’m onto another, “said Chris, who belonged to NJIT's Educational Opportunity Program, which he calls his second family.  “But over the years I realized that life is a journey, not a destination, and I’m still on that journey.” 

The Dancers

After the ceremony the students, and their loved ones, gathered outside the Prudential Center. The surrounding streets were closed to traffic and quickly filled with the graduates, who posed for photos and hugged each other and their families and clasped their friends. One large family brought a portable sound system with them. They turned it on and soon the plaza filled with Arabic music. The family stood in a line, linked arms, and danced the Dabke, an Arabic folk dance.  In that line was graduate Senator Nasir, who after the dance was over said his family’s spontaneous eruption of joy was a thrill, one he’ll never forget. 

“When they danced I saw the happiness in their eyes,” said Senator, who already has a full-time job secured at Cogizant, an information technology firm in Teaneck. “And to see them so happy made me happy. I never expected such happiness on this beautiful day.”

By Robert Florida