A Ph.D. Against All Odds: Art Hendela '81, '88, '16

Art Hendela '81, '88, '16

The moment when Art Hendela ’81, ’88, ’16 walked across the stage at NJIT’s May 2016 Commencement ceremony to receive his Ph.D. in information systems (IS) marked the culmination of 16 years of hard work and “a lot of life” that interrupted his pursuit of becoming the first in his family to receive a doctoral degree. As an “older” student, Hendela faced the challenges associated with growing older.

“I had 10 eye operations, each of which required a medical leave,” he recalled. “There were grieving periods when 10 close relatives, including aunts and uncles, cousins and both of my parents, passed away. Prior to my mom’s passing in August 2013, there was a period of about four years where I was the responsible party for my mom’s Alzheimer’s care. It was a highly emotional time in my life. After her passing, I faced the daunting task of clearing out my mom’s home, pretty much by myself, and to take care of her estate matters as the executor.”

Several months after his mother’s passing, Hendela came to a crossroads: He either had to allow the grief and the estate tasks to consume him and leave the Ph.D. program for good or he had to somehow dig deep and commit to finishing regardless of how he was feeling.

“I really did not feel like going back to school,” he said. “I made up my mind to return to school based on two thoughts. My dad, who passed away in 2003, was so proud of my pursuit of a Ph.D. that I felt I would disappoint his memory and pride if I did not finish. The second was that my loving mom always supported my education and my endeavors as an entrepreneur. She never would have wanted to be the reason for me not finishing.”

Hendela approached his advisers, Distinguished Professors Murray Turoff and Starr Roxanne Hiltz, with a very strong research proposal based on the interruption at his own business by Hurricane Sandy: the modeling of risk factors and corresponding mitigating actions relevant to small-business interruptions due to 16 different types of interruptions including extreme weather events, legal factors such as liability, and utility risks such as power outages. He also approached Dr. Jerry Fjermestad, Dr. Julian Scher, and his outside committee person, Dr. Tom Wilkin of CUNY, to ask if they would be on his committee.

“They all agreed,” Hendela said. “I reapplied and I am so thankful to Dr. Brook Wu for readmitting me. I needed to take a course to show I was still of an academic mind. I got an A in the Data Analytics class and I knew I was back for good.” 

As a doctoral student, Hendela enjoyed NJIT sporting events and when the IS Ph.D. program used to host family movie night. During those nights, he would bring his family to campus to watch a movie and enjoy the company of his fellow Ph.D. students.

“I made some close friends that I still keep in touch with,” he said. “Those friends and I used to enjoy watching Monday Night Football and eating pizza at their place in Harrison.”

The Right Choice

If Hendela were to choose one word to sum up his three degree programs, it would be “kind.”

“The professors and staff have always been so kind to give their time and advice freely, even many years after graduation. I remember that Dr. Reginald Tomkins and Dr. Ernest Bart, who I had as professors during my chemical engineering studies, helped steer me toward a master’s in computer science. I was torn between an MBA program and a more technical degree. Their advice directed me to the master’s in computer science. When I was thinking about going back to school 12 years after my master’s to pursue a Ph.D., I went to see Dr. Fadi Deek, the current NJIT Provost. At the time, he was a professor in the Information Systems Department. He gave me good advice on the differences between a computer science Ph.D. versus one in IS. He told me, ‘IS is applied computer science.’ Those words made up my mind. It was the right choice.”

Hendela had many doctoral proposals that were abandoned or rejected as committee members came and went and his research premise changed. After having so many starts and stops in the proposal process, his most memorable moment came in October 2014.

“It was then that Drs. Turoff and Hiltz, my co-advisers, gave me permission to send my proposal to the rest of the committee and to get ready for my proposal defense,” he said. “So many emotions flowed through me at that moment. I knew right then that I was going to become a Ph.D.”

A Great Fit

After graduation, Hendela applied for professorships at different universities and accepted an offer as a Professor of Practice in Information Systems at NJIT. He currently is teaching the graduate-level Introduction to Information Systems class as well as the undergraduate Database Design, Management, and Application course, which he calls “a great fit.”

“I ran a computer development consulting company, Hendela System Consultants, Inc., for 28 years where I needed to blend technical skills with management skills,” he said. The two courses I am teaching this semester allow me to share a lot of my consulting experiences on both the technical and management sides. When my two sons were young, I enjoyed coaching them in soccer, basketball and baseball. I miss those days of being able to build skills in young people. I look at teaching as another form of coaching where I can help shape their careers through the experiences that I have had inside the business world and outside of it, too.”

Looking back, Hendela said that his three NJIT degrees have all shaped his own career in different ways.

“The chemical engineering degree provided me with the skills and confidence to be able to solve even the most difficult technical challenges,” he said. “The master’s in computer science gave me programming skills and a theoretical background on how computers work and how they can be used. My Ph.D. provided me with management skills and allowed me the flexibility to do mathematical modeling in an area that has not been explored before.”

What advice would he give current students and alumni who are considering doctoral studies?

  1. Start younger than I did! I started the program at 42. I really thought I would become a professor by my late 40s. Unfortunately, the early to mid-40s is a time in many people’s lives that family and health events start to occur that you have no control over.

  2. Have a very strong idea of what it is that you would like to research. Many topics were of great interest. Unfortunately, many of the early ideas did not capture the needed passion by former advisors, committee people and even myself to follow through with them.

  3. You need to have a backup plan when committee people leave for one reason or another. I had several early members leave the university and were not available to help afterward.

  4. Build a support network inside and out of NJIT. I could not have done this without the support and sacrifice and encouragement of my family and friends.

  5. Don’t give up. I had many obstacles that could have blocked my finishing the Ph.D. degree. In Finland there is a word, ‘Sisu,’ which encompasses the ideas of sticking to a task, not giving up and continuing against all odds. Being of Finnish heritage, Sisu seems to have been in my blood, too. 

Christina Crovetto