Getting By with a Little Help from My Friend: Aileen's Triumph at NJIT

Aileen Davila, top student with a host of honors, awards and scholarships.

Midway through “boot camp,” feeling overwhelmed, Aileen Davila vanished.  She left her dorm room one Thursday afternoon and never returned.  

It wasn’t Army boot camp that she fled from.  It was academic boot camp – the six week summer session run by the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).  The summer camp helps incoming EOP students –– mostly minority students from working class backgrounds –– make the transition from high school to NJIT.  Students attend classes all day, tutoring sessions all evening, and study long into the night.  If they do well in boot camp––pass all their classes--they are admitted to NJIT as freshmen in the fall.

That summer, however, Aileen had had enough of boot camp –– enough of physics and enough of the math that, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t grasp:  Her math tests would be returned to her in rivulets of red ink.  And if she flunked math, she thought she might not make it through boot camp.   Embarrassed and shaken, she wanted out of boot camp and out of NJIT.

But one man -- Tony Howell -- wouldn’t let her.  Howell is not just the nationally recognized director of EOP.  To students in the program, he is a monumental figure, a charismatic drill sergeant who works overtime to ensure that his students –– his “EOP family” –– succeed.  And to the EOP students who, like Aileen, grew up in single-parent homes, Howell is more than that: he is a surrogate father, one who goads and prods and encourages them to excel.  Students like Aileen don’t call him Mr. Howell: They call him “dad.” 

Therefore, when Howell learned that Aileen was missing, he called her mother’s house.  She told him where Aileen was –– her aunt’s house –– and gave him the number.  Howell hung up and dialed that number.  He remembers that phone call.

“When she answered the phone,” Howell recalled recently, “I said, ‘Aileen, ‘this is your father.  You need to get back here.  We got things to do.’ I could tell by the tone in her voice that she knew I cared enough about her to reach out.  She was back in her dorm that same day.”

Howell characterizes Aileen as small physically –– she’s 4 feet 11 inches tall –– but tenacious mentally.  She is a survivor who, once motivated to accomplish something, does not settle for anything less than outstanding.  “And that’s just the kind of student she’s become,” added Howell, “Outstanding with a capital O.”

After Aileen returned to boot camp and survived her math class, she set her sights on the capital "O".  One month into her freshman year, her classmates voted her Freshman Class President.   Later that year, her near perfect grade point average –– a 3.9 –– allowed her to transfer into the Albert Dorman Honors College.   She majored in business management, with a dual concentration in International Business and Marketing. She also enrolled in the BS/MBA program, which allows undergraduates to take graduate-level classes.  

Aileen excels in management –– a skill she was forced to learn at an early age.  When she was in high school, her mother worked long hours.  So she and her two younger brothers and sister went to live with their grandmother.  Aileen helped to raise her siblings – she was the disciplinarian in the house – while also attending high school and working 40 hours a week at two part-time jobs.  She supported herself financially and managed her own affairs while managing the lives of her three young siblings. 

Managing all that –– children and high school and two jobs –– didn’t make her bitter or self pitying: It made her strong.  It forced her to dig down into her innermost resources and dredge up vast reserves of energy, motivation and drive.  She also developed an iron will and steely determination –– precisely the skills that make for a good manager. 

As a result, Aileen, now a senior, has management skills so finely honed that the Affinity Federal Credit Union, New Jersey's largest credit union, picked her to be a student representative. The Union turns to her for advice about college students and finance.  Similarly, the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, which annually distributes more than $1 billion in financial aid to college students, named her its student representative.      

To highlight just a few of Aileen’s achievements at NJIT, she’s won an EOP Outstanding Academic Achievement Award, an Honors College Scholarship and a Dean of Students Award.  She holds the Women's Endowed Scholarship, the Franklin Hopper Athletic Alumni Scholarship, a Remember to Share Scholarship and the Joseph Calluori Scholarship.

She also belongs to the Army National Guard as well as to the ROTC Cadet Program.  She chose the ROTC program through Seton Hall because it trains cadets for the Army; NJIT’s program focuses on the Air Force.  Having grown up a tomboy, Aileen prefers the grit and dirt of the Army.  After she gradates in May, she’ll be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army.  And when she arrives at the Army, she intends to ask her superiors to deploy her to Iraq.  It’s not that she loves that war, or any war.  Rather, she’s grateful for the training the National Guard and ROTC have given her, and wants to “devote myself unselfishly to my country,” she says.  

NJIT is proud of Aileen’s myriad accomplishments.  So much so that the university asked her to be the student speaker during its annual fundraising dinner called Celebration.  During that dinner, standing at the podium, Aileen will talk about the obstacles she had to overcome before she arrived at NJIT.  

She’ll talk about what it was like to grow up in a single-parent home; how shouldering all those responsibilities taught her to fight for what she wanted in life.  She’ll also talk about her three siblings, and how proud she is of them for excelling in school.  And she’ll mention how lucky she was to find NJIT, and especially EOP, which together have given her so many opportunities. 

She’ll recall the day she vanished from boot camp –– left her dorm to hide out at her aunt’s house –– intending never to return.  And the fateful phone call she received from the man who referred to himself as “her father.” The man who persuaded her to come back.  To not give up and to fight for the college degree that, come May, will become her avenue to a bright future.  And she’ll end her talk by casting about in her mind for the right words to describe the deep feelings she has for the man who comforted her during her time of need.  Here is what she intends to say:

“I can’t express in words the gratitude I have for Mr. Howell, the man I call ‘dad.’  Whatever success I now have in my life, he’s the big reason for it.  I’ll never forget how he encouraged me at a time in my life when I was ready to give up.  One day, in the future, when I have enough money saved up, I’ll make a donation to EOP.  I hope Mr. Howell can use that money to offer a scholarship to a good student from a humble economic background.   One who maybe comes from a single-parent family.  One who perhaps had to work hard, at a young age, for everything she ever wanted.  One who, with a little help from a friend, will succeed beyond her wildest dreams.”  

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)

Full text of Aileen's remarks at Celebration 2008:

Good evening everyone, my name is Aileen Davila.  Before I begin, I would like to thank everyone responsible for my attendance this evening.   First and foremost, I would like to thank Dr. Joel Bloom for his constant support and invitation to come and speak at this evenings’ Celebration Dinner; Dr. Albert Dorman and the Honors Board of Visitors for their on going support and generosity; Mr. Howell and the EOP Family for giving me the direction needed to attend NJIT and the courage I that needed to concur all obstacles that confronted me; Mary Kate Naatus of the School of Management for introducing me to such a great program my junior year of high school and for keeping your promise of being there throughout the years; Mary Barrington of Alumni Relations for being a mentor and offering me the opportunity to represent my generation for Affinity Credit Union;  Lenny Kaplan of Athletics for your support when I was in season and for your support whenever I need on campus employment; last but definitely not least, my wonderful family for who I would sacrifice everything for thank you and this is for all of us.

I am honored and humbled to tell my story before such a generous and forward thinking audience.  My story is not one of sorrow and despair; it is one of success and triumph.  It involves everyone here and your integral roles in my life, whether it is through financial contributions or mentorship.  As I stated earlier, my name is Aileen Davila and I am a Business major with a concentration in International Business and Marketing.  I am currently in my fourth and final year of the BS/MBA Program and look forward to graduating this upcoming May.  It was not too long ago that I was in search for a university that would provide me with a great education and yet be economically feasible.  I am the first in the family to pursue a higher education and I understood that I had to find a way to make it to college and yet sustain myself throughout the four years. 

It was through Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, NJ that I learned of NJIT.  I can still remember Mr. Ontaneda and, then, Ms. Ramano relieving us of our classroom duties to inform us of what NJIT has to offer us.  They did a complete overview of the majors, campus culture and even delve into the wonders of Newark’s lovely train system and cherry blossom trees.  Regardless to what it was, they attracted me, our Valedictorian, Salutatorian, and about eight other students from my Class of 2005.  All we knew that we could count of them being there for us.  This was crucial in my decision to attend NJIT; I saw commitment and dedication in my future.  Later on in my senior year I applied to Rutgers New Brunswick, NJIT and Montclair State University.  I was accepted to all three and due to the relationships built and the time invested I choose NJIT.

Realizing that I had to work full time and attend high school full time they accommodated me by working on my schedule and mentoring me on my time.  They helped me with my SATs and motivated me to excel even if I decided to attend another university.  I was soon accepted into the EOP program and was soon pushed into a world of Leadership.  I was forced to sit in the front at every event, join every organization on campus, represent myself in a respectable manner, and most importantly forced to invest time in filling out scholarship applications.  I can remember one application in particular, the Albert Dorman Honors College application.  The application that I was told not to even attempt filling out during my initial application to NJIT my senior year of high school; and here I was a freshman in college applying for a college that I would have never thought I would have ever been apart of.  “This was a waste of time”, or at least I thought.  I was accepted and was opened to a new world of financial support in addition to exceptional standards that constantly challenged me. 

Through all of the support and hard work I not only gained visibility as a student leader, I learned the importance of investing time in things that would benefit my future; constantly taking that extra step to stay ahead of my competition.  I soon became a leader on campus and thus far, I have had the opportunity to serve as a student leader on Senate as Freshman Class President and Executive Board Treasurer, INROADS MetLife Intern, Intramural Sports Coordinator, Student Liaison for Latinos In Science and Technology Association (LISTA), Undergraduate Representative for the Affirmative Action Human Relations Committee, Student Advisory Committee NJIT Representative, Affinity Credit Union Gen Y rep; Division I Athlete; and more recently Army National Guard, Seton Hall Army ROTC Cadet, a sister of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.  I am proud to say that I am accomplished, I have no regrets, and know that I will soon sit in your very seats offering the gift you have offered me and others.  You have all offered me my education and strength; two qualities that can never be stripped from me ever.  You have proven to me that I am worth investing in.

So where am I going and what will I be doing?  As I mentioned earlier, I will be graduating May of 2009 and plan to dedicate my life to selfless service.  I will be attending law school as I serve my twelve plus years as an officer in the Army National Guard.  I look forward to graduating, commissioning as a Second Lieutenant, training and dedicating my life to service as my late cousin did.  I will be branch Military Police and will eventually apply JAG once I pass my bar.  I will be one of the most driven people you will encounter, never taking “no” for an answer and constantly working to prove against the impossible.  I have found new strength in myself and look forward to instilling these same beliefs in those I encounter, constantly reaching back and doing as was done for me.  I understand that your contributions can become an expense, one that not very often offers an end result, but tonight I stand here as that end result. 

Without this university, and without the different colleges and schools it encompasses, I would not be who I am and I would not be able to pave the way for my siblings.  All of your contributions are not only affecting those in attendance now, they are affecting generations to come.  Thank you for your time, financial contribution, and most importantly the self-confidence you infuse in us as we realize that if someone we do not know can invest in us why can we not invest in ourselves?