A Hospital-Bound Father Watched His Son Graduate from NJIT

Gregory Forstrom (left) and his father, Howard, have an especially close relationship.

Gregory Forstrom is especially close to his father, emotionally and intellectually.

When he was boy, Gregory had a few learning disabilities, so his parents decided to homeschool him. And it was his father, an engineer with two degrees, who taught him math and science. Years later, after Gregory enrolled at NJIT to study civil engineering, his father continued to mentor him.

But when the day came for him to graduate from NJIT -- summa cum laude -- his father couldn’t be there. He has stage 4 prostate cancer, which has progressed recently, so his doctors told him not to leave Hackensack University Medical Center. 

“I was supposed to be out of the hospital and be able to attend Gregory’s graduation,” said Howard Forstrom, a software engineer for the Harris Corporation, formerly ITT. “I felt bad about missing his ceremony.”  

But with help from the nurses at the center, he didn’t miss his son’s ceremony. The nurses helped Howard set up his laptop and made sure he had a good wi-fi connection. With that, he was able to experience the ceremony live from NJIT’s website. So on the morning of May 17, he watched transfixed as Gregory, wearing the gold medallion with a red lanyard denoting a summa cum laude, mounted the stage of the Prudential Center and received his degree.

 “I watched it all and was super proud of him,” said Howard. “NJIT is a challenging college and he graduated with all A’s and one B-plus (in a graduate-level course). Though I was at the hospital physically, I felt like I was there with him, which was critical to my physical and mental health. The nurses realized that parents have a universal urge to see their child graduate. ”

The nurses even went one better. They decorated a hospital lounge for a make-shift graduation party for Gregory, replete with congratulatary banners and red and white balloons -- NJIT’s colors. And after the NJIT graduation ceremony ended Tuesday, Gregory, along with his grandparents and his mother Ellen, drove to the medical center to see Howard.

“It was definitely bittersweet,” said Gregory, “but it was wonderful to see him. And it was wonderful of the nurses to plan it all. He just kept telling me how proud he was of me for doing so well at NJIT. My mother said the same thing.”

His parents have good reason to be proud of him. At NJIT, Gregory was a scholar in the Albert Dorman Honors College, which attracts some of the brightest students in the nation. He graduated with a 3.89 GPA and has already taken graduate classes toward a master’s in civil engineering. He transferred into the Honors College from Passaic County Community College, from which he graduated with an associate degree in engineering science and a 3.98 GPA.  

“I loved NJIT’s Honors College,” said Gregory. “It was a great experience for me and I learned so much there about so many different things, especially engineering.

Engineering runs in Gregory’s family: His father has two degrees from Stevens Institute -- a bachelor’s in chemical engineering and a master’s in computer science. And his grandfather, Walter Forstrom, earned a bachelor degree in electrical engineering from NJIT in 1957. It was then called the Newark College of Engineering, and Walter took classes at night. He went on to have a good career, working for Wagner Electric, in Parsippany, now a division of Cooper Industries.

And Gregory, too, already has a great job.Starting Monday, he’ll begin working for Crew Engineers, in Butler, New Jersey, an engineering firm that does infrastructure projects for municipalities. He interned at Trew last summer and did so well that they gladly kept him on.

Gregory has worked hard to overcome some early obstacles in life. When he was a boy, he was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder, which affected his hearing. He also had a speech impediment, which years of speech therapy erased. And through it all, his father was behind him, encouraging and teaching him about engineering and science -- but also about life.

“My father has always had a positive outlook,” Gregory said, “and he still does. He’s optimistically undergoing the latest cancer treatments and he’s a volunteer chaplain at the hospital’s cancer center. He tells fellow cancer patients they can still be productive with their lives.”

Robert Florida (robert.florida@njit.edu)