They met in second grade and, with similar family origins and a mutual interest in science, have been friends ever since. Aseel Shehadeh and Tahanee Mustafa, who both have parents raised in Palestine and who partnered in six consecutive New Jersey Science Olympiads hosted at NJIT, have something else in common: They took part in Options for Advanced Academic Achievement, a program of the university’s Center for Pre-College Programs (CPCP).

Options offers an opportunity for qualified high school students from partner schools to earn college credits at their own school during the academic year. Courses are taught by high school teachers certified by NJIT as adjunct faculty members, and require the same syllabus, textbook and prerequisites as the on-campus course.

Shehadeh and Mustafa became involved in Options during their junior year at Rising Star Academy in Union City, N.J. Together they started with Pre-Calculus and Physics I, and then continued in their senior year with Calculus I, receiving 12 college credits.

“When my school offered NJIT courses, I was a little hesitant because the thought of taking a college course in high school was a bit intimidating. However, I wanted to challenge myself,” recalled Shehadeh, a Passaic native whose mother is an educator and father is a businessman. “The best part about this program is that you get a head start when you begin your college journey.”

Mustafa, from Jersey City and the sixth of seven children, added, “I wanted to participate in this program because I was very interested in not only receiving a head start in my college career, but in getting a glimpse of how college courses are in order to prepare myself for my academic years to come.”

(From left) Aseel Shehadeh and Tahanee Mustafa graduated from Rising Star Academy in 2017.

Those years have already begun for the pair here at NJIT, following their graduation from Rising Star Academy in 2017. Mustafa is studying biology with aspirations to be a physician’s assistant, and Shehadeh is majoring in biochemistry with plans to pursue optometry. They both now live in Clifton, N.J., and often share the commute to campus. As NJIT students, they carry on family legacies as well: Shehadeh’s sister is a biology alumna and her brother an electrical engineering (EE) alumnus; Mustafa’s father holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in EE from NJIT and her older sister received a bachelor’s in applied mathematics and a master’s in pharmaceutical engineering at the university.

Shehadeh and Mustafa say they are finding great success at NJIT due in part to CPCP’s Options. “This program is tremendously beneficial for high school students,” Mustafa remarked. “It is an opportunity…that I believe helped me very much as I went through my first year at NJIT.”

“I must admit…going straight into Calculus II in my first semester at NJIT was difficult, not because I did not have a good foundation in Calculus I, but because I was still new to the system and was in one of the most difficult classes at NJIT,” noted Shehadeh. “However, I was able to get through and pass the class and move on to Calculus III, and I believe it is because of the opportunity I received in my high school.”

Another bonus of their Options coursework? Both Mustafa and Shehadeh may be able to complete their undergraduate studies in three years instead of four.