Meet the 2015 Freshman Class

The freshman class is the largest and smartest in the history of NJIT. Above are a just a few of the bright students in the class. (Photo by Fariha Tasneem)

To fit all of Akhil Dondapati’s accomplishments onto one page is a challenge. That’s because he has so many.

At West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, he took nine AP classes and earned perfect scores in all of them -- straight 5’s. For his effort, he was named a National AP Scholar. He graduated with a 4.76 GPA, and scored 800 in Math and 800 in Biology on the SAT subject tests. He took the ACT test, too, and got a perfect score: 36. 

With his credentials he could have gone to just about any college in the nation. But he chose NJIT, where he majors in biology and is part of the 7-year accelerated medical program with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“NJIT was my first college choice because of the accelerated medical program,” says Dondapati, a scholar in the Albert Dorman Honors College. “In three years I’ll get the best education and arrive at medical school a year early. But while I’m here I'll do research, volunteer at the hospital and join social clubs. My goal is to become a neurosurgeon, which is a lot of hard work, but I think it will pay off in the end.”

Dondapati is just one of 1,162 students in this fall’s freshman class, the largest and by one important measure -- SAT scores -- the smartest in the history of NJIT. The class has an average SAT score of 1211 in math and reading -- 19 points above last year’s class. Statistically, that's the highest SAT score of any freshman class. 

Well-prepared students tend to gravitate toward demanding majors, and the most popular majors selected by this class are mechanical engineering, computer science and biomedical engineering, followed by civil engineering, computer engineering, engineering science, biology and architecture. Most freshmen come from New Jersey but others come from far-away states such as Hawaii and California, Texas and Washington, Indiana and Illinois. Some also come from abroad.  

The class enters NJIT at a time when the university is stronger than ever. The Brookings Institute reported recently that NJIT is one of the nation’s top 10 schools that “provided the greatest value-added boost to their alumni in the occupational earnings power…”

Indeed, many students in the class say they chose NJIT because it’s a top-ranked university that’s affordable yet offers majors that lead to internships and, later, good jobs. Many also noted that NJIT is near to their hometowns, which allows them to remain close to their families, geographically and emotionally. Some commute and save money, while others live on campus but can commute home on weekends or holidays. Many also note that NJIT is relatively small and a close-knit campus: The self-enclosed quad, they say, allows them to get to classes quickly and to develop close relationships with students and professors. NJIT is also located in the heart of the metropolitan region, a short train ride away from Manhattan, many say, where employment opportunities abound.    

What follows are profiles of a few Honors College freshmen whose stories, when read together, we’ll give you a sense of the talented students in the 2015 freshman class.     


Shanee Halevi’s favorite spot on campus is the garden -- the flower and vegetable garden on the terrace of Fenster Hall. She loves the drooping faces of the sunflowers and the organic vegetables that bloom there. That’s because she likes to garden and to cook and to be outdoors. She’s considering starting a gardening club at NJIT.

Halevi also loves art, too. She attended Susan Wagner High School in Staten Island, where, as part of an art show, she designed a lifelike puppet of Galileo. She likes to draw and doodle and she keeps an art notebook. She’s also good with languages: she speaks Hebrew and Spanish.

Driven and curious, she taught herself how to play guitar. She also taught herself AP physics and AP chemistry as well as how to code in HTML and Python. She belonged to her school's Scholar's Academy and was in the National Honor Society and on the High Honor Roll.

“I like to advance myself,” says Halevi, who majors in engineering science. “Staying still is unproductive. I always find ways to keep my brain going.” 

And her brain goes pretty fast. She graduated with a 4.05 GPA and high honors and scored 1410 in the math and verbal sections of the SAT. She won the math faculty award and was named an excellent student in science, art and English. She likes to write fiction and for her prose efforts she won the Random House Creative Writing Award.

She’s also socially conscious. On a recent weekend, as part of NJIT Against Hunger, a student volunteer effort, she helped make and distribute sandwiches in Newark. She is also joining Engineers Without Borders, the on-campus club that helps make improvements in developing countries. And she’ll volunteer to keep the local parks in Newark clean and green.

“I love being outside and planting and beautifying nature,” she says. “I also hope to do research on renewable energy to protect the environment. And I’ll tend to the roof garden on Fenster Hall. It reminds me of my garden at home.”  


Matthew Reda made the most of his high school years. Academically, he took seven AP classes for a total of 22 college credits. Athletically, he earned 11 varsity letters in four sports -- lacrosse, soccer, basketball and track. He was the captain of his soccer team and was named a Scholar Athlete by The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.  

Extra-curricularly, he participated in math league, biology league and physics league and, as part of the Future Business Leaders of America, made it thrice times to state finals. He was the Student Council President and a member of the National Honor Society and the Spanish Honor Society. As a boy scout, he accumulated 120 merit badges -- 22 being the average for  scouts. And whereas most boys achieve the rank of Eagle Scout shortly before their 18th birthday, he earned it at 14. He graduated from Pequannock Township High School, in Morris County, N.J., as his class salutatorian.

At NJIT, Reda majors in mechanical engineering and hopes one day to work as an aerospace engineer for NASA. He is already a member of NJIT’s Aero Club and hopes to get an internship at NASA. Reda is friendly, open and gregarious and has a habit of making friends wherever he goes.   

“I try to do everything to the best of my ability,” he says.. “I want to get a job at NASA -- so I have to do my best. My intention is to get a 4.0 GPA this semester.”


Adithya Kannan is fiercely intelligent. He attended High Technology High School, in Monmouth County, N.J., which according to Newsweek ranks second in the nation. He graduated with a near perfect GPA and a perfect 1600 on the math and verbal sections of the SAT. He was co-captain of his school’s Quiz Bowl Team, which placed fourth in the nation. Individually, he was a semifinalist in the USA Biology Olympiad and he was part of a National History Team that placed fifth in the nation. His Science Bowl Team, moreover, placed fifth in the region.

Last year, he did an internship at Columbia University Medical Center, where he worked on microbiology research. And this past summer he did biophysics research at NJIT with Professor Gordon Thomas. 

Kannan, a biomedical engineering major, is part of the accelerated medical program with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. He’ll spend three years at NJIT and four at the medical school. 

But he also has a passion for literature and writing and intends to write for the Vector, the school newspaper. Asked why he has such a well-rounded curiosity, Kannan cited the advantages of a TV-less youth.

“My parents didn’t have cable television at home,” he says, “so I was forced to read. I read many great books of literature for fun. I really enjoy learning.” 

Biomedical engineering is the perfect major for him, he says, in that it combines biology -- he likes helping people -- and engineering -- he likes problem solving.

“That’s why I want to become a doctor,” adds Kannan. “Because I’ll apply engineering techniques and biology to help patients. I have a passion for helping people.”


Lourdz and Anna Vallejo are identical twins. Anna was born first; Lourdz arrived 30 minutes later. Both were born two months prematurely. But they grew quickly and became close quickly. They now room together on campus.

Anna graduated from Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro, which is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the third best high school in the state. She majored there in law and justice and took AP classes in calculus, physics, statistics, U.S. government and politics, U.S. history, English literature and English language and composition. She likes to read and to write and enjoys reading poetry in Spanish, especially the poems of the Chilean-poet Pablo Neruda. As a Filipina, Spanish isn’t far from her native language, Tagalog, which she speaks fluently.

The range of her curiosity seems endless. She does photography. She writes. She plays the cello. She taught herself to play piano by ear, or really, by sight: She watched pianists play and copied their finger work. In high school, she co-founded the debate club and played on the volleyball team. She’s interested in government and law, and last year interned with Congressman Bill Pascrell in Paterson, N.J. She graduated high school with a 3.98 GPA and scored 1430 in math and reading on the SAT.  Here at NJIT, she majors in biology but ultimately plans to attend law school.

Thoughtful and articulate, Anna says being a twin is infinitely interesting. When she and Lourdz were young, she says, people struggled to distinguish between them so treated them as one person -- as one unit. That made it hard for them to develop separate identities. They grew up with the same friends in the same environments having had the same experiences. But as they got older, they developed their own identities.

“It’s an interesting state of mind, being a twin,” she says. “We know each other so well but in many ways we are now opposites. We went to different high schools and developed different interests. But of course we room together and of course we are best friends.”

Lourdz attended the Bergen County Academies High School, which according to Newsweek is the fifth best public school in the nation. She was part of the school’s Engineering Academy. She was in the National Honors Society, the French Honors Society, was president of Multiple Sclerosis Club and historian of the International Day of Acceptance group for Filipinos. She, too, is fluent in Tagalog.

She was involved socially at her school while hewing to a rigorous class schedule. She took four years of physics including, AP physics; three years of chemistry, with the AP class; two years of biology; and, took AP classes in calculus and psychology as well as an International Baccalaureate class in world literature. She graduated with 3.98 GPA and scored a 2120 on the SATs and a 32 on the ACT. 

Despite all those classes, she managed to learn more outside of school. She taught herself to play classical guitar and has designed countless models of complex origami and kirigami. She also created stop-motion animation shorts, and tried her hand in computer coding.

In her senior year research project, she taught herself Unity, the game design program. She created an environment for viewers who, wearing Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, entered an African savannah and could see the landscape through the eyes of a lion or an elephant.

She also interned at a high-speed camera company. She was part of the mechanical engineering division and  used Pro Engineer to model the mechanics of a high speed camera. At NJIT Lourdz majors in mechanical engineering and hopes to use engineering in socially beneficial ways.

"I hope that I will not only gain knowledge but be able to use it to do something beneficial,” says Lourdz. “After my undergraduate studies, I plan on pursuing a master's degree in mechanical engineering and maybe even earning a doctorate. After that, well, I'll see where life takes me."


Daniel Daudelin comes from a big happy family -- one that also happens to be brilliant. He has nine siblings and all of them, like him, were homeschooled. Three of them graduated from NJIT with perfect GPAs, high honors, and bright futures: David is a senior software engineer at Zynga; Jonathan is a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at Cornell University; while, Isaac is pursuing a dual M.D.-Ph.D. degree at Rutgers medical school. And three Daudelins, Daniel included, are now enrolled in the Honors College: Elizabeth, a sophomore, is a top math student in the state and a National Merit Finalist, while Timothy, a captain of the NJIT Track and Cross Country teams, is now interviewing at top dental schools.

Daniel, a biology major, is very much in the family tradition of academic excellence. He graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA. As a senior, he took two chemistry classes at Centenary College and earned A’s in both. The college also awarded him a Science Merit Award. His PSAT score -- a 223 -- earned him a National Merit Commendation; his SAT scores were a few answers away from perfect (780 in reading; 770 math).

Along with two of his siblings, he formed a robotics team that competed in the FIRST Lego League New Jersey state tournament. The team took first place in the robot design category.

For the last two summers, Daniel worked as a research intern at NJIT, assisting Professor Jorge Golowasch on a study of the central nervous system. He also has volunteered at his local hospital's emergency room and serves on his town's First Aid Squad.

He likes to read the classics -- he recently read David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities -- and he's also musical: He plays the violin and the piano and often plays the latter in the Honors College lounge. He plans to attend medical school and become a pediatrician. Growing up with younger siblings, he says he developed a liking for children and enjoys helping them so thinks a pediatric career will be fulfilling.  

"I am very grateful for the generous scholarships and excellent education NJIT offers,” says Daniel, “which are enabling me to achieve my dreams."


Jenan Abu-Hakmeh has varied interests: she studied science and technology in high school, majors in business at NJIT yet plans to attend law school.

She graduated from Bergen County Academies High School and while there she made National Honor Society and National Spanish Honor Society. She speaks fluent Arabic, her native language. In her senior year, she did an internship in marine engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. Athletically, she rowed for a private club in Rutherford, N.J. but at NJIT she switched athletic gears: She runs for the Women’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams.

And though her high school focused on science and technology, she majors in business at NJIT and is interested in law. In that regard, this past summer she interned at the Superior Court of New Jersey, in the Family Division in Paterson. She attended court hearings and consulting conferences and prepared case summaries for Judge Sohail Mohammed, the state’s first Indian-American judge and the second Muslim superior court judge in New Jersey. Mohammed is also an NJIT graduate; he earned a degree in electrical engineering in 1988.

In terms of volunteering, she organized a “Rose for Peace” religious event this past summer in Manhattan’s Times Square, where volunteers gave roses to passersby in the name of Islam. Many people wrongly perceive Muslims as violent, she says. She affixed authentic Islamic sayings to the roses -- messages which, in her view, more accurately encapsulate the religion. One such saying was this verse from the Quran:

“Whoever kills a soul… it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.” {Quran 5:32}

After she gets her degree in business, she intends to apply to law school and to combine her interests in business and law.

“My main academic experience throughout high school had been in science, research and engineering and I’m grateful for that education,” she says. “But I realize that I want to combine business and law. I’m grateful that NJIT offers both business and pre-law classes and I’ll explore all those classes.”


This past summer, Paul Adedeji attended Google’s Computer Science Summer Institute. Thousands apply to the Institute but only a handful is chosen. He was one of them.

Adedeji, a mechanical engineering major, spent the summer at Google’s headquarters in Manhattan, learning programming and other skills from Google engineers.  

“The office was relaxed and casual,” he says. “People wore jeans or shorts and the Google employees who taught me were brilliant but treated me like an equal. One of the purposes of the Institute is to encourage us to apply for Google internships next summer. So I’m looking forward to that.”

Google tries to hire the most talented students in the nation, and Adedeji fits that mold. He graduated from Union High School, Union County, N.J., with a 4.5 GPA. He was named an AP Scholar with Distinction and made National Honor Society​ National and Spanish Honor Society. He had high SAT scores and co-founded his school’s computer science slub. He was also vice-captain of the debate team; belonged to the Model United Nations team; was a peer ambassador and also played varsity tennis. He spent the summer of 2014 at Rutgers University as part of a research program called Aim High Academy.

In high school, his favorite subjects were 3-D design and robotics, which is why he selected mechanical engineering as his major at NJIT. He’d like to one day design robots for a living.  Therefore, he intends to join the Robot Club at NJIT and as well as the African Student Association and also to become an on-campus leader.

“My parents always encouraged me to study hard and do well in school,” he says. “They instilled that work ethic in me and I’m grateful to them for that.” 


It’s hard to quantify artistic talent, but that’s precisely what Jelani Haynes-Prescott possesses in droves. At Oratory Prep School, in Union County, N.J., he was president of the art club, a member of the National Art Honor Society and a two-time winner of the art award. He loves to sketch animals, people and landscapes and his drawings were often exhibited in the school. His favorite painters are Van Gogh and Picasso but he also likes Ken Sugimori, the Japanese video game artist who designed the Pokemon characters. He also likes math and graduated from Oratory with high honors, a near-perfect GPA and high SAT scores.

His paramount passion in life, though, is gaming: He loves video games and wants ultimately to work as a game designer. And given his career goal, NJIT had just the major for him: digital design.

“Digital design fuses technology and art in a way that I really appreciate,” says Haynes-Prescott. “I’ve had a passion for video games for 15 years -- I started when I was 3-years old. And I hope to get a job working as a game designer.”

To refine his gaming skills, he intends to take the classes in game development and to participate in the on-campus Global Game Jam.  He's already joined two clubs at NJIT -- the Siggraph Club (the student chapter of Special Interest Group in Graphics and Interactive Techniques) and ACM (the Association for Computing Machinery), that will help him improve his design and computing skills.

When he was 5-years old, his parents bought him an X Box, he says, and the first game he ever played was Fuzion Frenzy. Currently, his favorite games are Dead or Alive, Phantasy Star Online and Super Smash Bros

“I love gaming so much,” he says, “and that love inspired me to want to make games of my own. After I graduate I’d love to work for a big gaming company like Nintendo or Sega or Game Freak or maybe work as an independent game designer. I’m also minoring in Information Technology so I’m keeping my options open.”


Akhil Dondapati, the multi-talented student who began the story, didn’t only excel academically. He did much more than that.

Last summer, he did an internship at Princeton University, conducting lab research on a new class of compounds thought to have antimicrobial effects. He participated in the Governor’s School in the Sciences, a competitive program for top high school students. As part of the program, he took college classes at Drew University and did scientific research (in enzyme purification) and psychological research (in cognitive illusions). For an independent research project, he also studied the effect of natural foods such as garlic, ginger and mint on the growth of bacteria. He compared the effects of those foods to those of known antibiotics.

In terms of volunteering, he was president and cofounder of a 4-H Club that worked to help children ward off obesity. The club traveled to schools, afterschool programs and summer camps to talk to children about healthy living. He also volunteered at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

In his school (West Windsor-Plainsboro High South, Mercer County, N.J.), he played varsity volleyball and played saxophone for the school’s jazz band. He also played sax for the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey.

He holds four named scholarships and was also a New Jersey Governor’s School Scholar, a U.S. Presidential Scholars Program Candidate, and a Princeton University Laboratory Learning Program Panelist.  

Asked to explain what motivates him to accomplish so much, Dondapati offers this reply:

“Ever since I was young I loved biology and aspired to become a doctor. So I knew I had to do well academically and to get involved in research as well as volunteering and extracurriculars. It's a lot of hard work, but again I hope it all works out for me in the end."

By Robert Florida (