Feature Stories

This Former-Marine and Outstanding NJIT Senior Already Has a Great Engineering Job

Jay Vargas, right, is an ex-Marine who excelled at NJIT.

After high school, Jay Vargas didn’t enroll in college. Instead, he enlisted in the Marines.

Times were hard at home and he didn’t want to burden his parents with tuition bills – his younger brother was also approaching college age. So at age 18, he enlisted in the military, knowing that after five years the new GI Bill would pay his college tuition.  

Jay was the kind of boy for whom electricity was magic. He’d spend endless hours exploring the inner workings of a toy train or a transformer robot. When he entered high school, he was transfixed by the wonders of electronics. He yearned to study engineering in college.His becoming a Marine was thus a major sacrifice and a selfless one. And in end, it worked out splendidly in his favor.  

Adept at math and science, Jay aced the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam, which allowed him to choose a job.Given his interests, he elected to become an aviation electronics technician.  After one and a half years of training, he was skilled enough to maintain military aircraft and high-tech helicopters.  It was his job to ensure that the sophisticated navigation and radio systems aboard the helicopters didn’t fail.

The military gave him a free education, and a tour of the world, both in wartime and in peace.  In wartime he was stationed twice in Iraq (2004-2005, and 2006-2007) and also did tours of duty in Kuwait, Australia, Singapore, Spain and India. What he learned about the world, and about himself, was more than any college could have taught him.  

“Although I did learn a great deal of technical knowledge in the Marines, most importantly I learned a great deal about myself,” says Jay, now a senior majoring in electrical engineering.

“Through my experiences I learned to collaborate with people from around the world,” he adds. “Through my time in Iraq and in the poorest areas of Mumbai, India, I realized how lucky I was to have a place to call home and a loving family roughly 6,000 miles away. Yes, all of these experiences may seem extreme, but it really put my life into perspective and only made me that much more motivated to make the best of what I have been blessed with.”

When he finished his military service and enrolled at NJIT, Jay’s motivation pushed him to the top of his class. He has won a host of honors and awards.  Most recently, the Newark College of Engineering named him the Outstanding Senior in electrical and computer engineering.  He has a 3.94 grade-point average and his name perennially appears on the dean’s list. He’s a scholar in the Albert Dorman Honors College and in the Ronald E. McNair Achievement Program, which prepares minority students from low-income families for graduate school.  It also teaches them to do research, and Jay’s research on electromagnetics won first place at a symposium sponsored by the Philadelphia Alliance for Minority Participation.  His research, done with the physics department, also won first place at NJIT’s Dana Knox Research Showcase. 

He was also the only in-state student to win the 2012 SMART (Science, Math, and Research for Transformation) Scholarship. It not only funded his tuition but also included an internship.  The internship he was awarded, fittingly enough, was with the U.S. Army.  He spent six months interning at the Picatinny Arsenal, a military research center. He did so well that the army recently offered him a full-time job at Picatinny, working as a Radar Antenna and Radio Frequency Systems engineer.

So though he graduates in May, he already has a great job. The Army, moreover, will pay for him to attend graduate school. He plans to get his master’s in electrical engineering from NJIT, Columbia or NYU. Looking back, delaying college to enter the Marines to help his family was the right best decision he could have made.

In this interview, Jay talks about his non-traditional path to military, academic and professional success. 

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Why, after the Marines, did you come to NJIT?

First I studied at a community college in Orlando, Florida, and then I went to Bergen Community College because I was home living with my parents in Maywood, N.J.  NJIT was close to home and had a great electrical engineering program.

What were the highlights of your NJIT education?

The McNair Program gave me the research experience that helped me get the Smart Scholarship and the job at Picatinny Arsenal. That job will also pay for me to go to grad school. McNair not only helped me to become a researcher but also helped me to develop professional skills, such as how to prepare a resume and how to communicate well. 

Did NJIT prepare you for your job at Picatinny?

Yes, the work I’m doing now is theoretical and I use what I learned in my classes. I keep my school books on my work desk and I reference my class notes often.  So the preparation was direct. I develop 3-D models of antennas and I simulate them as well. Then if that works out, I experiment with actual prototypes in the radio-frequency labs.  All the stuff I learned in class I’m directly applying.  What I learned in Professor Gerald Whitman’s radio frequency classes I’m using directly.   

What will you miss about NJIT? 

In general, I loved that the campus was small and that my classes were small, so that the professors were accessible to me. I hear that larger universities have classes with 300 students.  I’ll also remember that whenever I needed help, a professor was there to help me. Their doors were always open.  

How is your family doing now? Did it all work out for your brother and your parents?

Yes, my mother, who has a master’s degree in piano performance, is the music director at a church in Secaucus. She’s also a music teacher and choir director at Fort Lee High School. My father works as an artist, curator, and architect for artistic layouts (such as lighting and presentation in store fronts). My mother is German/Scottish and from Albertville, Alabama (a small southern town) and my father grew up in Luperon, Dominican Republic (a small fishing town). He moved to the USA when he was 18, knowing very little English. My brother graduated from Rutgers- Newark with a bachelor’s degree in history.  He is currently working as a real estate agent in Manhattan.  I feel good about the decision I made and how things panned out.  I look forward to the future and what challenges lie ahead.  I was 18 when I enlisted in the Marines and 23 when I came to NJIT but it all worked out. My parents are very proud of me.

By Robert Florida