Feature Stories

Owen Fitzgerald: an Outstanding Student and Person

NCE's Outstanding Senior Owen Fitzgerald

Owen Fitzgerald was not always an outstanding student. In high school, for instance, he did well but didn’t excel.  And that made his father suspect he was coasting -- not working to his potential.  Therefore, during a parent-teacher conference at Owen’s high school, his father raised the issue with one of Owen’s teachers. 

“I walked into that meeting with his math teacher and right away asked about Owen’s motivation,” recalls Kevin Fitzgerald, Owen’s father. “The teacher stared at me and said, ‘Mr. Fitzgerald, you must be kidding.  If I had a handful of Owens in my class, I’d be blessed.  He not only does well but he helps his classmates.  I can’t ask him for more than that.  He’s not just a good student, he’s a good person.’

Two other teachers that evening said the same thing about Owen: He was bright and he helped his classmates.  Reassured by these positive appraisals, Keven didn’t reprimand Owen about his motivation.  And that was a wise decision.  Two years later, when Owen entered college he decided -- of his own volition -- to study harder. Or to use Kevin’s words, “once Owen entered college he turned up the burners.”

Top Student

Owen’s studiousness paid off.  Recently the Newark College of Engineering (NCE) gave him its highest honor, naming him its Outstanding Senior of 2008.  He was also named the Outstanding Senior in the department of Engineering Technology (ET). So come May 18 he’ll graduate garlanded with two of the university’s highest accolades.  “Once I entered college I said to myself ‘this is the real thing’ and I decided to do my best,” said Owen. “My parents expected me to do well but they never pressured me. They were just always loving and supportive.”

Owen didn’t come directly to NJIT.  After high school, he wasn’t sure what to study.  So he stayed close to his home Monroe in Township and entered Middlesex County College. There, he explored various subjects until he found a major – Construction Engineering Technology – that he loved.  When he was a boy he always loved to build things; he love hands-on projects and working with people. This was thus a major made for him and he devoted himself wholly to his studies. Three years later, his industriousness paid off:  He graduated from Middlesex with a perfect grade point average: a 4.0. Scanning his college transcript one sees nothing but As –- straight As. 

He decided to transfer to NJIT and major in Construction Engineering Technology, a hands-on major that emphasizes building and construction. He loved it and continued to excel – his intellectual burners ablaze.  Once again his diligent studies paid dividends, for his accomplishments here have been many. 

He’s a scholar in the Albert Dorman Honors College with a GPA of 3.94.  Altogether, he has acquired a total of 10 scholarships.  He’s worked two major internships at construction companies and somehow found time to do volunteer work: He’s helped collect toys for sick children; helped raise money for cancer research; and worked at a soup kitchen that feeds homeless people.

Engineers Without Borders: Helping People

His most significant volunteer work, though, has been for a student group called Engineers Without Borders. The students in the group use their engineering and technical skills to improve the lives of the poor. Owen, president of the group, is heading a project to help villagers in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, acquire clean drinking water.  The villagers, from a town of Milot, commonly grow ill drinking from local stream. They use the streams to bath in and to wash their clothes.  It’s their only drinking supply and therein lays the problem: the water is infested with animal and human waste.

 Under Owen’s leadership, the student group traveled to Milot last fall to assess the water problem. The group is now building a bio-sand filter -- a concrete box layered with sand and gravel -- that villagers can use to clean the water.  The students hope to return to Haiti sometime this summer to help the Haitians build and use the filters. Their goal is to train enough villagers to use the filter so that, when the students leave, the locals can of their own accord build, operate and maintain the filters.

Asked recently why he has an urge to help people, Owen paused, appearing puzzled by his altruistic instincts.

“I don’t know why,” he said.  “I’ve always just wanted to help people. And with this Haiti project we are applying what we learn in class while helping people directly.  I always wanted to build things with a team and help people. This project does both.”

Professor Jay Meegoda, the adviser for the Haiti project, says Owen was the best thing to ever happen to Engineers Without Borders.  When he became the group’s president Engineers Without Borders began to thrive.  And the work Owen is doing for the group will also have a profound influence on his future.

“Owen will graduate soon and I strongly believe he is going to one day be a leader of our nation,” says Meegoda. “By selecting him as our Outstanding NCE student, we are the first to identify and reward a young man who I see as a future leader of our country."   

As a proven leader and NCE’s Outstanding Student, Owen could land a top job working for a major construction company. In fact, he’s already gotten such an offer.  But he has other plans.

After he graduates on May 17, Owen is considering working for a non-profit group that specializes in water purification for Haiti.  He might also join the Peace Corps, the national group whose volunteers improve the plight of inhabitants of developing countries.  He’d like to use his construction and engineering background to build whatever is needed -- housing, bridges or roads – to help people in need.

Social Consciousness

Most students these days are obsessed with their careers.  That’s all well and good but Owen is different, according to John Wiggins, a university lecturer and program co-coordinator for Construction Engineering Technology. Wiggins, who taught Owen, came of age in the 1960s.  Back then, he said, it was common for students to talk about joining the Peace Corps.  But Wiggins hasn’t seen a student exhibit an interest in the Peace Corps in many years. 

“But Owen is Owen,” says Wiggins.  “He’s a great student with a sense of social responsibility. To have such a level of social awareness and social consciousness at his age, in our era, is rare.  He’s not only an outstanding student, he’s an outstanding person.” 

Owen’s interest in working in Haiti or for the Peace Corps stems in part from his love of foreign travel. He’s already traveled to Europe, China, Turkey and Mexico.  Nothing pleases him more than to immerse himself in a foreign culture.  He pays for the trips himself.  He started working when he was 14, and he’s worked part or full-time jobs ever since. He lives at home, which allows him to save money for trips. He travels cheaply, staying in youth hostels or with relatives. Early this summer, he’ll travel to Ireland to visit members of his extended family. He comes from an immense Irish clan whose 40th family reunion he recently organized. It was quite an organizational feat, since some 130 relatives from across the world attended the reunion, held at a resort in Catskills.  His trip to Ireland will constitute the first summer he’s had off had since he was 14, when for his first job he worked on a farm in his hometown, Monroe Township, harvesting and selling vegetables.  He was always industrious -- even as a boy.    

A Kind Boy: a Builder

Owen was a sweet and sensitive boy who, more than anything else loved to build, says his mother, Karen.  She recalled the summer when she and her husband added an addition to their house. They possessed the knowledge to do the addition themselves: She’s an interior designer and he’s a vice president for a construction company. Every morning Owen, then 10 years old, would emerge from the house wearing his tool belt -- eager to build.     

“He was just a boy but he’d wear his tool belt,” adds Karen. “He’d be out there helping us pour concrete or whatever needed to be done.  If he was too small to help, he’d stand and observe. He didn’t miss much and he had lots of questions. He was a smart cookie -- a sensitive and humble boy, very caring.  He’s still like that today.   My husband and I are very proud of him for all he’s achieved.”

Owen’s keen intellect manifested itself early, she says. When he was three years old Karen used to read him to sleep at night.  He had his favorite books and if she was tired and skipped a line or two in a book, Owen would call her on it.

“He was just a little guy,” says Karen, “but whenever I’d tried to get away with skipping ahead he’d say, ‘Mom, you skipped a line.Go back.’ I’ll never forget that.”

She and her husband are a bit apprehensive about Owen working in Haiti or another poor country. But they will support Owen in whatever he decides to do. He’s proven to them, most recently by his outstanding performance at NJIT, that when he sets his mind to something he excels in it and also winds up helping others, too. 

“The only problem with him going far away,” Karen says, her voice tinged with a touch of melancholy, “is that I’ll miss him.”

(By Robert Florida, staff wrtier)