Nick Fuentes-Zuluaga was just 2 years old when he and his parents left their home in Bogota, Colombia, and migrated to the United States. They settled in Rockaway, N.J., with the aid of his aunt in nearby Parsippany and began a new life, far from the mounting violence triggered by their native country’s illegal drug trade.
Assimilating into the American culture and learning the English language proved difficult, but they persevered. Fuentes-Zuluaga’s father, employed by an architectural firm in Colombia, and his mother, who was in banking, took hourly-wage jobs to support the family, which welcomed a baby girl a few years after they arrived stateside.
Today, Fuentes-Zuluaga’s family is doing well. His dad now works in information technology after earning a certificate in the field, his mom is an accountant during tax season, his sister is a junior in high school, and he is a mechanical engineering major/business minor at NJIT. This May, Fuentes-Zuluaga will not only receive his undergraduate degree, he will also become the first in his family to complete college.
Being a first-generation college student “means more than what people would think,” said Fuentes-Zuluaga. “It’s a responsibility. To be first means you’re going to feel alone most of the time, but it’s all for something bigger than me.
“Coming into a new country as a child, I was easily receptive to the feelings of fear from my parents. ‘What does this say?’ ‘How do you do this?’ I believe I absorbed a lot of those feelings of insecurity and anxiety. My comfort zone? I found peace in the classroom… [and] thankfully my parents always emphasized the importance of education.”
Thriving as a Highlander
While his mother and father greatly supported him when it came time to apply to college, they were unfamiliar with the SAT, ACT and College Board and as a result unable to really help beyond paying for test prep courses. He ultimately relied on his guidance counselors to shepherd him through the process, and received a lot of assistance from the Admissions Office at NJIT after deciding to attend the university.
“The day I stepped on campus, I saw ‘every color of the rainbow.’ I felt right at home,” remarked Fuentes-Zuluaga, who wanted to stay in state and is a commuter student. “I just knew [NJIT was for me], because it had the university vibe, but it was small enough for me to excel.”
And he certainly has excelled. He has made the dean’s list for the past two years, and he co-founded FowndersX, an events-based entrepreneurial club aimed at providing students with resources for networking and professional development. Though the club disbanded after the incubator that sponsored it closed shop, it welcomed several tech CEOs to campus as guest speakers.
He also is a fellow of the Governor’s Hispanic Fellows Program hosted by the state of New Jersey. The organization helped him secure a summer internship in 2017 at Bristol-Myers Squibb’s (BMS) New Brunswick site, where he worked in the facilities and maintenance operations department as an assistant project manager for cooling systems. The company subsequently offered Fuentes-Zuluaga a part-time job, which he has held since May 2018, with additional responsibility for small projects.
As an intern he had the memorable opportunity to be part of a student panel on STEM education at a corporate event, hosted by BMS’ CEO, Giovanni Caforio. “It was kind of surreal,” he said with a smile upon the recollection, “because I’d only been with the company for a year and a half and I got to meet the CEO.”
Fuentes-Zuluaga has served as student director of NJIT’s First Fellows team this academic year as well, leading events, linking with other campus organizations, and writing and distributing the club’s newsletter. “Our mission is to help first-gen college students at NJIT with the resources, advice and support they need to get through college,” he noted of the organization. “I didn’t learn how to learn until my junior year. My biggest advice to college students: Find your learning strategy.
“My motto is that anything is possible,” added Fuentes-Zuluaga, who has accepted a full-time position in the pharmaceutical industry. “My dream is for kids to see me and read my story and say, ‘Wow, that kid looks like me and shares the same story as me. If he can make it to the top, what’s stopping me?’”
In addition to First Fellows, NJIT supports first-generation college students through Strive for College, an online mentoring platform. The university has been recognized for the past three years in Strive’s I’m First! Guide to College, “a guidebook designed to help low-income, first-generation students make college a reality.” Features of the guidebook include articles and advice from experts and college students, information for parents and an interactive college-planning curriculum for students, teachers and counselors.