As towering cranes and forklifts shuttled brightly colored containers from ships to trucks in Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal last week, Cameron Bennett ’22 was also busy inside the port loading human-scale cargo to go back out to sea.

Bennett, one of the 1065 freshmen to disperse across the Newark metro area on NJIT’s annual First Year Service Day, was packing beautiful hand-knit hats and scarves and toiletries into hand-sewn bags at the Seamen’s Church Institute, a nearly 200-year-old organization serving mariners dispatched across the globe. He was struck to learn that the ditty bags, which also contained notes he penned “thanking them for all they do,” might well be the only present the seamen received over the holiday.

“You think that everyone gets a gift on Christmas. This was an eye-opening experience for me,” said Bennett, a computer engineering major from Old Bridge, adding, “What’s awesome is they can definitely use the stuff they’re getting.”

The Seamen’s Church Institute, which provides a broad mix of services for mariners passing through, including a chapel, lounging areas, computer terminals and a pool table, among many others, was one of 30 nonprofit partners to take part in the annual event. Across the region, other students were also discovering new worlds and latent talents.

Cameron Bennett, Keith Montalvo, Brandon Chin and Kamela Chandrika preparing holiday gifts for mariners far from home.

Christopher Rodrigues, an Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology major from Fairfield, found himself in what some call Newark’s secret garden – the Greater Newark Conservancy’s Hawthorne Ave. Farm – pulling up carrots under a sizzling morning sun.

“I’ve never gardened before – it’s peaceful. I didn’t expect something like this in Newark,” he said of the 2.5-acre urban farm, with its rows of vegetables, beans and melons and 75 fruit trees coaxed out of a formerly vacant lot. 

Shona Jain, a senior from Scotch Plains majoring in biology, spent the morning cleaning up and reordering a vast, humid supply room at the Malcolm X Shabazz High School, “salvaging the good and getting rid of the old.” But that was only one of her missions that day. As a Learning Community mentor, it was Jain’s first outing with a group of about 30 biology students she will see every week over the course of the year in workshops, exam study sessions and social events.

“I feel comfortable with my major and I hope they also ask me questions. A lot of bio students think all you can do with the major is go to medical school and one of the first things I’ll tell them is that there are so many other doors open.”

She called the day a success. “I knew they were having fun. When we left in the morning there was a hush on the bus, but on the way back it was so much noisier. Everybody was talking," she recounted. 

“This is a good way for students to meet and really open up – not in class, but rather doing things together. If there’s a purpose, it’s even better,” she says. “I also think it’s important to show them that community service is a big part of the school and to instill the idea that you should always give back. It’s so easy – there are so many opportunities.”

Gwen Paulovits, from Plainfield, was the lone computer science major that morning at Shabazz amid a cluster of biologists. She enjoyed the day nonetheless, noting that the school clearly needed a hand and that the students had peeled away clutter dating back decades in some cases, including attendance records from the 1960s and old science supplies. Her takeaway: “Cleaning up is always a bonding experience.”

In a surprise visit by NJIT President Joel Bloom, who'd been meeting that morning with Roger León, Newark's new superintendent of schools, and the school's principal, NJIT alumnus Naseed Gifted, Paulovits and others got some immediate thanks for choosing to pitch in rather than "doing something else" that day. He also delivered some on-the-spot advice at the outset of their college careers once back on campus: get on your homework!

Hassan Elsaid, a biochemistry major from Union City, said that beyond the "fuzzy good feeling" of helping out, he "loved going out into the city" and absorbing the optimism about its future expressed by the teachers. "I like the momentum of the city."

Shona Jain, Hassan Elsaid, Gwen Paulovits and Colette Lichtenstein readying a Newark high school for opening day.

For some students, the day was mostly spent listening. Daniel San Filippo, a business information systems major, received close to a lifetime’s worth of advice on everything from education, to exercise, to romance from two kindly residents of the Grace West Manor Senior Tower who were eager to dispense it. Reflecting on the day, he said he already misses them and would like to keep up.

“Our students really enjoyed this project, because the seniors felt like grandparents,” noted Vivian Lanzot, NJIT’s director of civic engagement.

Daniel San Filippo receiving grandmotherly advice at Grace West Manor Senior Tower.

For the nonprofits, the Service Day is a chance to make themselves known to individual volunteers who may return over the course of the year, as well as to the university they represent.

“I challenged the students to pack a 16-bushel bin of knits,” said Joanne Bartosik, manager of the Seamen’s Church Institute’s Christmas at Sea program, noting that by the end of the day the crew had complied, assembling 300 ditty bags with knits and toiletries. But she said she was also pleased to introduce the students to both the Institute and the port.

“This is unique work and a unique way of life: mariners are away for very long periods of time from their family, friends, homeland and language, and these bags are often the only gift they receive. Whether they celebrate Christmas or not, they appreciate them,” she noted.

She added, “Because so many of the students are engineers and mathematicians, I think it was educational for them to see how the port works. We took them on a tour of Port Newark so they could see how containers are unloaded from the ships and placed on trucks and, more generally, what a tremendous operation this is. The Port Newark/Elizabeth Marine Terminal directly employs 5,000 individuals."

Lanzot said she was flooded with same-day emails from nonprofits across the city expressing thanks.

“But two of the most rewarding experiences I had this year were hearing a group of students getting off the bus saying, ‘this was amazing,’ and another group talking about their new appreciation for the preparation it takes to get a school ready for the first day of class,” she recalled. “Our students arrived in the morning ready for this journey, rolled up their sleeves and settled into the community. This was indeed AMAZING.” 

“Service Day is really a great way for new freshmen to bond with one another and feel good about starting their college life at NJIT. A student told me that this is really the best icebreaker because it isn't an awkward team-building exercise and they can all rally around doing some real good for the community,” said Leo Pedraza, associate director of New Student Orientation at NJIT, who works closely with Lanzot on the event.

For many of the day’s volunteers, it will not be their last day of service. Lanzot’s team will follow up with a nonprofit expo on September 19th (from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the Wellness and Events Center’s Concourse) that will bring 30 partners to campus who are eager to recruit. “Students will be able to engage the representatives on a one-to-one basis and find opportunities best suited for them,” she noted.

The university at large will have the opportunity to give back by contributing to the NJIT Food Pantry - Homecoming 2018 Community Service Project.

And indeed, some NJIT students were out on the streets of Newark well before the First Year Service Day. In late August, the campus chapter of the American Water Works Association received an award from the city's Office of Sustainability and Mayor Ras Baraka for cleaning and maintaining several of the city's catch basins, which are a critical point for both pollution and flooding.Their work, which began last spring as part of Newark's Prepared Together program, continues this fall with plans to paint the cisterns to raise awareness of pollution control measures - and volunteering.

NJIT's catch basin crew collecting trash before it pollutes or clogs the sewer system.