Breakdancing or Calculus? An NJIT Student Who Loves a Challenge

Arif in the NJIT gym

Every day, around noon, Arif Arifi visits the university gym. In the back of the gym is a big red mat, where he likes to warm up.     

He turns on his boom box and starts to stretch -- his taut muscles bulging. Then, as the box thumps to the sound of DJ Shadow, and as the gym-goers turn to watch him, Arif begins to tumble, twirl and spin across the mat.

He twirls on his shoulders with his upright legs revolving with the velocity of a ceiling fan. He tumbles backwards -- perfect 360s -- landing on his feet with the practiced grace of a gymnast. He does a handstand, and then raises his arms, balancing himself solely on his head. Then he whips his body around and begins to twirl, swiftly, on the top of his head. The effect is like watching an inverted human body turn into a top. 

“The moves he makes are amazing,” says one gym-goer who, from her perch on a stationary bike, often watches Arif. “I don’t know if he’s an athlete, a gymnast or a dancer. But I love to watch him do his thing.”

His thing is a mix of athleticism, gymnastics and dance. He’s a breakdancer who comes to the gym whenever he can to practice the moves that define the gritty urban street form: windmills, freezes, flares, pikes, air chairs and head spins. 

Arif, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, has been breakdancing for two years. He came to NJIT through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which helps low-income minority students succeed in college. As a freshman, Arif met four EOP students who were into breakdancing. He joined them one day. And before long he was hooked. The group still practices together a few times a week, and they are considering starting a breakdancing club.

Nhan Dang, one of the four, recalls first meeting Arif. “He told me that he did flips and gymnastic stuff,” says Nhan, a sophomore majoring in civil engineering. “So I told him, ‘Arif, why don’t you try breakdancing? You have everything one needs to break.’ And he did start. And now he is a better breakdancer than I am.”

To master breakdancing takes enormous flexibility, balance and strength. But it also requires mental concentration, courage and unwavering confidence. Arif possesses those qualities.

He also enjoys helping others learn. Whenever a novice breaker needs help learning a move, Arif offers to help. One day, Reniery Cevallos, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering, needed help with a freeze - a handstand-like move in which a breaker brings his head up while his legs lower towards his face. Arif helped him.

“I like figuring out how to do the moves,” says Arif. “A move is almost like a hard math problem. You have to keep working at it until you figure it out. I love the challenge of it.”

Arif’s love of the challenge has helped him academically, too.   

When he first arrived at NJIT, he needed some remediation in math. He had to take pre-calculus before he could take the class that most engineering students begin with: calculus. Showing the same tenacity he exhibits on the mat, Arif challenged himself to master the math that, through no fault of his own, he never learned in high school. And before too long, he was more than caught up.

“Arif excelled in my class,” says Professor Marty Katzen, Arif’s pre-calculus teacher. “He’s a hard-working ethical student who is conscientious and reliable. He’s also very good-natured, and I’d see often see him in class helping other students.” 

Katzen is renowned for taking EOP students whose high schools left them ill-prepared for college math and turning them into top students whose names perennially appear on the dean’s list.  

Arif is such a student. His parents were born in Albania, one of Europe’s poorest nations. His father, who didn’t attend college, works as a cook. The family lives in working-class Haledon, where Arif attended public schools.  

Katzen has a similar background. He grew up poor in the Bronx and attended public schools. Some afternoons, he recalls, all he could afford to eat was a candy bar or two. Yet on that scant nutrition he walked miles to school. Katzen, like Arif, worked extra hard to excel academically. And now, as beloved math professor, he delights in helping students from humble backgrounds excel in math.

Katzen has taught at NJIT for 44 years; thousands of students have passed through his classroom doors. Yet Arif’s work ethic made an impression on him. So much so, that at the end of the precalculus class Katzen made him a deal: If Arif were to get an A in his next math class -- calculus – he’d hire him as a teacher assistant. It was a challenge, and Arif welcomed it. 

When it came time for calculus, Arif worked as hard as he could; paying strict attention in class, constantly reviewing his class notes and doing endless hours of homework. Katzen’s masterful teaching had boosted his confidence, and he loved wrestling with a difficult math problem. At semester’s end, his diligence paid off.

“Arif got an A in calculus and I hired him,” says Katzen. “I was really proud of him when he got that A. He’s a wonderful example of an EOP student, who are the nicest and hardest working kids in the university. I enjoy working with them. Many come from poor high schools but they work like hell, just like Arif did.”

Arif now works as a teacher assistant for two math classes: college algebra and precalculus. He now, like Katzen, delights in helping students learn to love math. He also tutors in EOP’s summer program, the so-called academic boot camp that prepares incoming EOP freshmen for the rigors of NJIT. Two years ago, Arif was one of those students. Now he is their teacher.      

He counsels the students to have confidence, to work hard and to never give up on a problem. He gives them a few of his study hints: “Listen in class,” he says. “Review your class notes all the time: right after class, as soon as you get home and again before bed. Learn to love the challenge of figuring out a problem. Once you learn that, the A’s will come.”