When he was 12, Carl Robinson, who will graduate next week from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), faced a family trauma that was shocking in its brutality. But Robinson never lapsed into despair. He instead managed to use the life-altering events to motivate himself academically and altruistically.
On May 18 Robinson will graduate from NJIT with a degree in electrical engineering – one of the university’s most rigorous majors. And while a student at NJIT, he helped to found a social service agency, called Project 99, that counsels and mentors children with behavioral and emotional needs. The agency, originally based in South Orange, recently moved to Newark.
“Life is filled with many obstacles, some of which appear so extreme and long- lasting that they seem virtually impossible to overcome,” says Robinson, who lives in Irvington. “Nevertheless I tell the children I counsel that no matter how difficult it may seem you can overcome life’s countless challenges.”
Robinson own challenges were especially daunting. When he was in seventh grade, his mother took her own life. Robinson saw her do that. Just before his mother died, his father was shot three times. His father survived the shooting and was able to raise Robinson, who grew up in Plainfield. But shortly after his mother died, Robinson’s closest friend, who was innocently attending a party, was shot to death.
While coping with his loses, Robinson realized how many of his fellow students had lost a parent. And many of them, feeling victimized and angry, too easily fell victim to the lure of the street, says Robinson.
“I noticed the horrible paths that most of my peers who lost parents took,” he says. “Some wound up in juvenile justice systems while others failed or dropped out of high school. Others were killed or committed murder fighting over materialist things like bicycles, clothing and jewelry. After my mother died tragically from suicide I promised myself that no matter what I was going to make her proud of me.”
Robinson didn’t seek professional counseling; friends gave him the support he needed. He befriended two older and knowledgeable students who mentored and took him under their wings. He excelled at Plainfield High School, where he took an interest in technology and engineering. After school, he studied computer networking and robotics. He also volunteered to mentor children by working for the American Red Cross swim program and the YMCA of Plainfield/North Plainfield. Some of the tougher students who favored the streets – Robinson calls them “knuckleheads” – mocked him for studying so hard. But Robinson, whose self-confidence seems unwavering, left the bullies in his wake.
“Disrespect,” he says. “So many guys wind up dead fighting for respect. I never had any problem walking away from a dispute with a person who had nothing to lose when I always knew I had so much to gain from life.”
Robinson graduated at the top of his high school class and won a full scholarship, from the Black Engineering and Technology Alumni Association, to attend NJIT. He was recruited by Laurence Howell, the executive director of NJIT’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). The program helps disadvantaged students, mostly blacks and Hispanics, make an easy transition from high school to college. The students in EOP attend the state’s more impoverished high schools. Many of them never make it to college, especially to a rigorous technical university such as NJIT. Howell, however, has a talent for recruiting and then transforming students like Robinson into bright college students. Howell, a former Green Beret, oversees an academic boot camp that uses tough love principles to prepare the students for college, and for life.
“If you care enough to search through our inner-city schools,” said Howell, “you will find some diamonds waiting to shine. “Carl is one of those diamonds.”
With EOP’s support, Robinson not only succeeded academically at NJIT – he’s made the dean’s list several times – but he also joined several community-service groups such as the NAACP, the Essex County Chapter of the Urban League, Water Watch, an environmental group, the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and the American Red Cross. At NJIT he was a member of the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
Robinson also spent so many hours working with children that in 2004 he, along with two friends, started Project 99. His two friends, Zachary Simmons and Patrick Pasteur, are the two older friends who had mentored him after his mother died. Project 99 counsels children, adolescents and their families who living in the Essex County area.
Founding Project 99 is Robinson’s way of “giving back.”
“So many children come from broken of dysfunctional homes and don’t have adequate role models,” he says. “Some of the children we service have parents suffering from horrific illnesses and who are often on the verge on death. I went though the pain of losing my mom at a young age and I tell them about that. I tell them that although you will get down, you must stay strong, never quit and see it through. I sometimes quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, ‘If a person doesn’t see that they must keep striving, no matter what obstacles draw near, they will never reach their desired goals.’”