NJIT Students Sound the Call of Community Service

Owen Fitzgerald, a recent NJIT graduate who spent 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, is pictured playing percussion with the villagers he served.

When he graduated in 2008 as NCE's top engineering student, Owen Fitzgerald had  great job offers from major companies. But he turned them down. 

Instead, he traveled half way around the world, to one of the poorest countries in the world -- Mali -- to work for $7 a day. 

Owen lived in a mud hut in a village whose temperature sometimes hit 130 degrees. His meals consisted mostly of millet patties eaten with a slimy leaf sauce. Occasionally he’d get lucky and feast on local delicacies: field rats, lizards, squirrels and porcupines. He labored sweatily building latrines, concrete buildings (a school and an addition for a health clinic) and the village’s first well. It was back-breaking toil, but he calls it the greatest experience of his life.

“The work I did in Mali was not a sacrifice, it was a privilege,” says Owen, who recently returned from a 27-month stint as a Peace Corps volunteer.  “Conditions in Mali are trying -- it has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world -- but the people are so peaceful. And the smiles on the faces of the children can keep you going forever."

Owen’s work directly improved the lives of 450 Malian villagers – an impressive feat. Yet Owen, who graduated with a bachelors' in Construction Engineering Technology, is just one of hundreds of NJIT students whose community service helps build a better world. 

Despite their rigorous studies, NJIT students take time to volunteer for groups such as Habitat for Humanity, America Reads and Engineers without Borders. Last year, NJIT students donated an estimated 27,500 hours of community service to 197 non-profit organizations.  That total places NJIT on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, one of the highest federal honors a university can receive for its commitment to volunteering.

Other examples of NJIT student community service include:

• NJIT’s Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders focuses on humanitarian engineering work in the third world. Its main project is designing sustainable latrines for a small Haitian village, Milot. Over winter break, the students will travel to Milot to design and install the latrines. The group is also designing a prototype for a solar energy system for poor towns that lack electricity, and are designing a device that will allow a bicycle to convert mechanical power into electrical power. Owen Fitzgerald is a past president of the chapter.

Julian Rivera spent a summer in Haiti helping boys who live in an orphanage. He's returning to Haiti over winter break

• Each semester, every student in the Albert Dorman Honors College does at least 15 hours of community service, also known as community learning.  The Dorman students work on fundraisers, tutor school children, work for local medical clinics and feed the homeless. Dorman students also participate in the Engineering Better Readers Program, based at Camden Street Elementary School, Newark. The students read to the children and help them with hands-on projects. A recent evaluation showed the children’s reading comprehension has vastly improved since working with the NJIT students.

• The Career Development Services Office sponsors the NJIT Service Corps, which has developed partnerships with many non-profit agencies and identifies projects that students may choose. Students may also identify their own projects. Recent examples include an architecture student who developed a renovation plan for a senior citizen daycare center; students who designed assessment surveys for the Newark Museum; and  students who trained the staff at St. Michael's Medical Center to use advanced software.

A.J. Panzica spent a summer in Uganda helping rebuild a part of the country that was ravaged by war. He also helped the local children.

NJIT’s fraternities also do a great deal of community service. Some examples include these:

• Sigma Pi sponsors a fundraiser in the NJIT pub, where barbers volunteer to give haircuts. There is a suggested donation for haircuts, and the money goes to Locks of Love, a nonprofit group that donates wigs to children who’ve lost their hair from cancer treatments.

• Phi Sigma Kappa raises money to support an 8-year-old boy, known as Junior, who lives in a Ugandan village. Every month the fraternity raises enough money to supply Junior with food, water, shelter and an education. The fraternity also raises awareness for Invisible Children, a group that rescues child soldiers from the Ugandan Civil War.  The fraternity also plans to work with the Newark Conservancy to make Newark an environmentally greener city.  

• Phi Sigma Kappa member Julian Rivera sells Hope for Haiti t-shirts to raise money for a trip to Haiti he’ll take over winter break.  He’ll assist a nonprofit group, Wings of Refuge, at their children’s orphanage. He’ll help feed and clean the children as well assist in the orphanage’s ministry. He’ll also buy the children Christmas gifts. In high school, Julian spent a summer in Juarez, Mexico, building housing for the poor. He’s also worked once before at an orphanage in Uganda and after Hurricane Katrina he travelled to Mississippi to help people rebuild their houses.

• A.J. Panzica, also a Phi Sigma Kappa member, spent last summer in Uganda, where he helped a nonprofit group build the Dream Center - a multi-functional building that helped restore the war-torn region of Gulu.  A.J. helped build a water tower, a water purification system and a medical center. “The Ugandan people epitomize resiliency,” says Panzica. “They withstood the longest civil war in recorded human history; they rebuilt their homes several times over; and they are raising a generation in a land where men are few and fathers are memories.  The depths of their sorrows have carved out unthinkable heights of joy and on a quiet day you can hear restoration rising as the people reclaim their dignity, and teach us about simplicity, community and hope.”

• The Delta Epsilon Psi fraternity volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit group that builds houses for low-income people. This semester, it also sponsored "Be the Change," a national day of service. The fraternity also hosted a charity basketball tournament that raised $1000 for the Junior Diabetes Relief Fund.

• Under the direction of Josmar Tejeda, its community service chairman, Lambda Sigma Upsilon members volunteer at soup kitchens, read to schoolchildren, sponsor a Boy Scout troop and throw a yearly Christmas party for children from troubled families.  Lambda member Charles Bell started a mentorship program at two Newark schools, Quitman Street School and Central High. He and his brothers visit the schools twice a week to tutor students. Bell also volunteers at the Newark Public Library, is a student ambassador for the Newark Museum College Council and volunteered this summer for the Newark Peace Summit, during which he met the Dalai Lama.  “I love Newark and want to do all I can to help the city while I still live here,” says Bell.  After he graduates, Bell plans to travel to India to help children with leprosy.

Amy Cilento, an NJIT junior, epitomizes the NJIT spirit of giving. She spent this past summer helping poor children in Paterson, N.J.  Cilento worked for City Serves Youth Program, a nonprofit funded by AmeriCorps. She inspired the children to work on community projects such as packing boxes at the New Jersey Food Bank, planting community gardens and doing a river cleanup at the Paterson Falls. She also helped them form a Lego League and took them to the NJIT for free swim lessons from NJIT’s Swim Team. Cilento says she got more out of serving the children than she gave.

“As clichéd as it sounds,” she says, “the summer really changed my life. “It was a wonderful experience that was better than any vacation I’ve ever had. And I’m just grateful to play a role in all the good that NJIT does in the world.”

(By Robert Florida)