When Maria Karim graduated from Elizabeth High School at 18, she already had a baby boy. She was nonetheless determined to attend college.
“More than anything,” said Karim, “I wanted to gain an education so that my husband and I would be able to provide well for our son. But I was not altogether sure how I was going to reach my goals - given our youth and lack of money.”
Karim loved computers and electronics and suspected she’d like to be an engineer. But her family hadn’t the money to pay for an engineering education, and she wasn’t sure how she’d find time to study.
She applied and was accepted into the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), a program that helps minority students – both financially and academically – become engineers. That made all the difference.
For Karim, of Elizabeth, will not only graduate from NJIT on May 26 with a computer engineering degree: she will graduate at the top of her class. And her four-year-old son, Abdul, will be at Continental Airlines Arena on graduation day, cheering her on as she receives her diploma. So will her parents, and her husband.
“Although life as a full-time student and a mother at such a young age was extremely difficult and tiring,” Karim said, “my dreams and determination spurred me on.”
Karim’s motivation served her well at NJIT. She will graduate with a near-perfect 3.77 grade-point average and a host of awards and honors. She was named the EOP top graduating senior, and also received an outstanding academic achievement award from the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education’s Educational Opportunity Fund.
She belongs to the Albert Dorman Honors College at NJIT, one of the most demanding and rigorous colleges in the state. Dorman builds on NJIT’s rigorous curriculum, offering enriched coursework and seminars, as well as real-world projects with outstanding faculty researchers and industry leaders. Dorman enrolls some of the state’s brightest students, with SAT scores in the top 10 percent nationally and with math proficiency in the top two percent. The mission of Dorman is to transform students into leaders, and Karim is a perfect example of how the college makes good on that mission.
At NJIT, she was president of the Phi Eta Sigma National Honors Society, treasurer of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and vice president of the NJIT Electrical and Computer Engineer’s women chapter. She was a member of the Hispanic Organization of Students in Technology, of Tau Beta Pi, a national engineering honors society, and of Eta Kappa Nu, a national honors society for students majoring in electrical and computer engineering.
During two summers, Karim interned at IBM System and Technology Group, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., working on the next generation of computer chips for IBM’s servers.
In the fall of 2005, she will attend Columbia University, where she will pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering. She did so well during her two summer internships that IBM has sponsored her for a Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science (GEM) fellowship, which will pay her tuition and fees at Columbia. In return, Karim will intern for IBM during the summers while she is a student at Columbia. After she earns her master’s degree, she hopes to work as a computer engineer for IBM.
Because she had to work extra hard to get an education, Karim enjoys teaching and helping younger students. She worked as a math instructor at NJIT, helping freshmen and sophomore students who needed help with math. NJIT also recently named her a student ambassador and asked her to visit her old school, Elizabeth High, where she talked to students about computer engineering and how she was able to set and achieve such high academic goals. The high school principal presented her with an award for academic excellence in computer engineering at NJIT.
It’s been a long journey to success for Karim. She was born in Quito, Ecuador, but her parents immigrated to America when she was an infant. Her parents, who could not get a visa for her, had to leave her behind.
“My parents had no choice but to leave me with my grandparents,” she recalled. “My mother and father struggled for five years to prove that they would be able to provide for me before I was allowed to join them.”
Neither of her parents went to college, but they encouraged her to get an education. And once she arrived at NJIT, Karim found another kind of family, one she will never forget.
“The EOP program at the university is truly a giant family,” she said. “My advisers encouraged me to become an active, visible member of that family. My life will always be richer for having listened to them. Tony Howell, EOP executive director, is like a giant mother hen, keeping his eye on all of us, teaching us to communicate effectively, network constructively, stay organized, and most of all, to work with discipline. I experienced many difficult, depressing and exhausting days along the way. But those days, and the people who helped me through them, made me the happy, proud person I have the honor and good fortune to be today.”