A Mother and Son To Graduate Together

Libertad Lauren Harris (right) and her son, Garrett Gutierrez, will graduate together.

For perhaps the first time in NJIT history, a mother and son will graduate together from the university.

During the May 17 commencement, Libertad Lauren Harris will get a bachelor’s of architecture degree while her son, Garrett Gutierrez, will get a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.  

The two didn’t set out to attend NJIT together. Five years ago, Garrett had considered Drexel and Rutgers; but he found the former too expensive and the latter too big. When he told his mother he decided on NJIT, she responded with a question: “I asked Garrett if he’d mind if I came to NJIT --- I mean what teenaged boy wants to bring his mother to college with him?” she says.. “He said he was totally okay with it -- that it’d be fun for us.”

And it was fun for them, as well as mutually beneficial. She lived at home in Burlington, N.J., with her husband and three other children, and commuted to campus. He lived in the dorms. She’d occasionally bring him food; he’d help her with her physics homework. When she’d pull an all nighter, he’d take her car and drive to nearby Jerry's Art Supply and deliver materials to her in studio.

The two have always been close. Garrett, 22, is the oldest of her four children. And she loves to talk about when he was a boy; how he was an “amazing learner” who taught himself Japanese and Korean; how he played guitar and spent endless hours on his computer; how he earned a black belt in Aikido when he was 8 years old; how his friends would come to the house for sleepovers -- friends who are now adults.

“One day a few years ago Garrett was home and he and two of his friends helped me with physics homework,” recalls Lauren. “I thought back to when they were little and used to come over to the house for sleepovers, and now they were helping me with my homework.  It was sweet. The time went by so fast.”

Their five years at NJIT also passed swiftly. But it paid off for both of them. Garett already has a good job working as an engineer consultant for Cognizant Business Consultants, in Bridgewater, N.J. An avid gamer, he also has a part-time job as a video-game commentator. He was recently streamed live on Twitch, where he commented on Casual X-Men versus Street Fighter. Lauren is also a commentator of sorts. For the past year, she worked as student blogger for NJIT, covering the College of Architecture and Design (CoAD).

She is interviewing for full-time jobs at architecture firms and, given her academic accomplishments, she shouldn’t have a problem finding one. A scholar in the Albert Dorman Honors College, Lauren won an Undergraduate Research grant and a Dana Knox Research award -- both for her work in bio-enabled facade design. Specifically, she studied the potential use of micro-algae to power buildings and mitigate climate change. She also received a National Science Foundation grant to develop a testkit that people can use to evaluate the air and water quality in their homes. Finally, she won the Elly Matzko Memorial Prize, which goes to a student who inspires and motivates her fellow architecture majors. 

Some architecture students call her "Momma Lauren," since she serves as a surrogate mother to many of them, who are away from home for the first time.

“She’s like a mother to many of the architecture students, but first and foremost she’s a mother to me,” says Garrett. “I'm definitely proud of her for persevering through school while taking care of four children. No one else at NJIT can really claim to have worked as arduously as she did.”

Lauren had an added incentive to return to college later in life. Some years ago, she worked as the interior designer for Burlington Coat Factory; she was part of a team that designed store interiors. One day while at work, one of her male colleagues told her, “It’s your job to make things look pretty.” The comment cut her to the quick but also motivated her.   

“When he said that to me I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can do a lot more than make things look pretty,’” she says. “I can be an architect and design entire buildings.”

And now, five years later, she and Garrett will unite one last time as fellow students when they mount the stage of the Prudential Center to collect their NJIT diplomas.

For Garrett, the years went by so quickly that he still can’t fathom he’s finished. But he’s delighted that he and Lauren are likely the first mother and son to graduate simultaneously from NJIT.

“It’s a very unique thing and some people might remember us long into the future,” says Garrett.

For Lauren, graduating from NJIT is an occasion for relief, satisfaction and most of all, gratitude.

“It has been a long five years of sleepless nights, architectural modeling for studio projects, relentless studying and eating from food trucks and vending machines,” she says. “The amazing feeling of accomplishment, however, is overwhelming.  I am so grateful to my husband and children, who sacrificed everything for me to attend NJIT.  I've missed so many cheerleading competitions, school plays and soccer practices. They have eaten so many TV dinners and my husband has done so much laundry over the last five years. So, though I may be walking across the stage, they really deserve all the credit.” 

And she’s especially grateful to her fellow graduate -- Garrett -- for supporting her, from beginning to end.

“I am very excited to have done my degree alongside my son, Garrett,” she says. “He encouraged me from the moment I applied, and stood by my side while I glued myself to my models and struggled through physics. This experience has really taught him the value of education. He has a bright future as a consultant and is starting to spread his wings as an adult. My heart is so full of love and pride for all my children.”

By Robert Florida (robert.florida@njit.edu)