Typically one-third of entering students responding to NJIT’s annual new-student survey have parents who did not attend college. Knowing that the pathway to and through higher education can prove especially transformative for first-generation students and their families, NJIT provides valuable support with a range of programs — including the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program, Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and Center for Pre-College Programs (CPCP) — to help first-generation students realize their dream of a college education.

Recently, the university became a partner in Strive for College’s I’m First! national consortium of schools that nurture first-generation college students. As such, NJIT is one of 179 colleges and universities highlighted in the 2017 I’m First! Guide to College for their first-gen outreach efforts, financial aid opportunities and support services.

Indeed, NJIT’s rich history includes successfully educating talented students who are the first generation in their families to go to college. Armed with the resources they need to excel, these students are charting their career course and making a history of their own in the process.

Motivated by Mom

First-generation student and electrical engineering major Nickeita Tomlinson.

Nickeita Tomlinson, an electrical engineering major, overcame many barriers to become a first-generation college student, as well as a member of the NJIT community. She attributes her perseverance to her late mother, whom she says understood the importance of higher education.

“I think the only person that really knew what was expected of me was my mom,” said Tomlinson of her road to college. “My dad, he had no idea of the work you had to do, even in high school.”

Growing up in Jamaica, Tomlinson was a self-described quiet child who liked “pulling things apart to see what was in them, why they did what they did.” She took technology classes in high school, which further spurred her interest in how things work.

Unfortunately, after her mother died, tension grew between Tomlinson and her younger sister and their father, a manufacturer of video-game boxes for bars. He didn’t share her mother’s view of college and when Tomlinson expressed her desire to pursue university-level study, he asked that she leave the house. So in 2010, she moved to Hackensack, N.J., where she lived with her grandmother and uncle.

Tomlinson still faced hurdles, however, after relocating. She enrolled at Bergen Community College, where she struggled to pay tuition without any monetary assistance from her family, and worked several jobs. “My first semester was worrying about the financial aid,” she remembered. “Then it was more like trying to figure out the approach to school versus work. Balancing it with having a job was a lot of trial and error.”

She ultimately earned an associate degree in science and mathematics and later started at NJIT in spring 2015; she will earn her bachelor’s next year and wants to find a job in the power industry. Since arriving at the university, Tomlinson has been busy. In addition to belonging to the NJIT chapters of IEEE and NSBE, she is president of the Oak Hall Council and works as a desk manager for Residence Life. She also has tutored students in CPCP’s Upward Bound program and completed two electrical engineering internships, one at Con Edison and the other at RCM Technologies.

As a first-gen student, Tomlinson received help from NJIT’s Student Support Services Program. She aims to be a role model for and pass on the wisdom she’s gained to her sister, who came to the U.S. this past November. Most of all, she looks to build on the investment her mother made in her earlier education and make her mark as a woman in STEM.

“I realize it requires you to stand up for yourself and your ideas, and also be confident in what you know and not be intimidated by what others may think,” Tomlinson said, adding that she is learning to be proud of her accomplishments. Is she getting better at it? “Yeah,” she laughs, “but slowly.”

Crazy About Computers

First-generation student and computer science major Alan Romano.

Alan Romano, a B.S./M.S. computer science (CS) major in his third year at Ying Wu College of Computing (YWCC), credits self-determination to his being a first-generation college student — and a family computer plagued by a virus to his interest in CS.

Romano’s parents came to the United States from Mexico and eventually settled in Elmwood Park, N.J., where Romano grew up with his older brother and younger sister. His father has worked in construction and his mother in sales part time, and while his family has never lived in poverty, they also have never been well off. As a boy, Romano spent many afternoons helping his dad strip copper wiring to sell as scrap metal, instead of playing with friends.

“If my dad had a demolition job, he’d bring home the metal scraps. He taught us how to peel copper just to show us the value of hard work and money, so we wouldn’t take things for granted,” Romano recalled. “Whenever I would explain it to the other kids, they never understood it. But I think it bonded me with my dad.”

When his parents purchased a computer that became infected and costly to fix, Romano taught himself how to remove the virus and in the process found his passion. “I really liked working with the computer. It was just realizing how complex the machine was, and then as a child your imagination kind of gets crazy and you just think of all the possibilities that it could do.”

His curiosity was fueled further as a middle schooler after he won Raytheon’s MathMovesU scholarship competition, for which he wrote about the ties between computers and mathematics. Then he took online coding classes during high school and also participated in NJIT’s on-campus Science and Technology Enrichment Program (STEP), which emphasizes rigorous but fun hands-on STEM skills and intellectual inquiry. STEP convinced him to pursue a CS degree at NJIT, where he is minoring in applied mathematics and participating in the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program.

As a McNair scholar, Romano has been working under Michael Bieber, professor and associate chair of the Department of Information Systems at YWCC, to build a website for a participatory learning education system. This approach to teaching uses digital resources to promote a more collaborative, hands-on learning experience for students and their instructors, Romano explains.

The McNair program has “definitely been helpful to me,” remarked Romano, who plans to pursue a graduate degree. “It’s really influenced me toward having a research kind of career.

“I’m hopefully going to be the first one in my family to get a degree,” he added. “My parents didn’t really understand why I would want to continue in higher education. Now they know that my chosen career is very in demand right now, so they’re happy about that. And they also know that I really like the field, so they’re also happy for me.”