Feature Stories

NJIT Student Wins Google Scholarship: His Journey from Mexico to NJIT

Google scholarship winner Oscar Tapia

When he was 13 years old, Oscar Tapia always carried a dictionary. It was his friend and his teacher -- his passport to a brighter future. He had just arrived from Mexico and was eager to learn English. For without that, he could not do what he came here to do: Get a good education.

Oscar was living with relatives at the time, none of whom had attended college, and all of whom toiled as laborers -- working two jobs but still living frugally. Seeing his relatives work so hard for so little both saddened and motivated him. 

He learned English and excelled at school. After he graduated from high school, though, he didn't attend college – and for one simple reason: He couldn't afford it. He worked for a few years and saved his money. With his savings he bought a computer – the first he ever owned. And before long, he was infatuated with computer technology. After work, he'd log onto his computer and teach himself whatever he could. One night, as he stared at his computer screen, he saw staring back at him a reflection of his future. A future that would somehow, in some way center around computing. 

Now, 16 years later, Oscar is a senior at NJIT majoring in computer engineering. And even though he's had to work -- either part time or full time -- to pay for his classes, he maintains a perfect grade-point average: a 4.0. He has a concentration in Computer Technology and a minor in Business. And through an accelerated BS/MS program offered by the College of Computing Sciences, he's already taken two graduate-level classes.

His determination has even caught the attention of one of the world's leading companies: Google, which recently gave him a $5,000 Hispanic College Fund scholarship. The Google scholarship is given yearly to Hispanic students who have overcome obstacles and done excellent work in computer science. Scholarship winners must also have shown a commitment to improving their community. Oscar spends endless hours mentoring mostly first-generation students who are considering attending college. In the spring, Google will pay for him to fly to its headquarters in Mountain View, California, where he will spend the weekend.

Oscar, who is soft-spoken and humble, with a quick and easy smile, is grateful for the scholarship.  “I place a high value on education,” he says. “When I came to America at age 13, I saw first-hand that life without an education could be harsh. My relatives wanted better things for themselves and their families, but they were limited by their lack of an education.”

Oscar's own efforts to get an education didn't come easily. After he worked for a few years and taught himself computing, he earned a technical degree from Chubb. He worked for a year as a computer network consultant and then enrolled in Passaic County College. He continued to work full time and take classes, studying information systems. He eventually got his associate degree. He had heard that NJIT was a great school for computing and he was eager to get his bachelor's degree. But no one in his extended family had ever been to college and the mere act of applying made him anxious. But he did apply. And now, two years later, he is due to graduate in May with a perfect grade point average.

Oscar also has a capacity to help others. David Lubliner, a professor of Computer Technology who has taught Oscar, is impressed by his generosity of spirit. “Rarely do I get a student,” says Lubliner, “who is both excellent academically and willing to mentor other students in the class.”

Oscar spends hours on the phone talking to friends, family members and acquaintances, encouraging and helping them apply to college, says Susana Tapia, Oscar's wife.

 “I can't tell you how much time Oscar spends talking to people about the value and importance of education,” Susana says. “He's on the phone with them all the time. He's worked hard to get an education and he wants others to have the same opportunities.”

Both she and Oscar are deeply committed to community service, says Susana, a medical student at UMDNJ who spends her evenings volunteering at a public health center in Newark, tending to poor people.

Asked how she reacted when Oscar told her he won the Google scholarship, Susana didn't hesitate: “I was very proud of him. He works very hard and I can't think of anyone who is more deserving of the scholarship.”

Oscar and Susana have two sons, a 6-year old and a 4-year old. And when they are a bit older, Oscar hopes his persistence in the face of adversity will motivate them. 

“When my two sons are old enough,” he says, “I'll encourage them to follow their dreams. Because I've learned that anything is possible when you're willing to work hard and stick to your goals.”

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)