They Made it Through Boot Camp -- Together

Deliris Diaz and her mother, Marilyn. One day, Deliris wants to buy her mother a house of her own.

Deliris Diaz made it through boot camp, an intensely demanding academic summer program. That means she entered NJIT this fall as a freshman. And that means she's a step closer to achieving her dream: To graduate from NJIT; to get a good job; and to buy her mother a house -- a house of her own. 

Her mother, Marilyn, now lives in a subsidized apartment in Newark. Deliris, along with her twin sister and older brother, live with her. Marilyn is disabled and cannot work; the father left the family years ago. Money is not plentiful at home and Deliris's neighborhood isn’t the best. But the neighborhood at least served to show her what not to do in life.

Many people in her neighborhood took the wrong path, says Deliris. They didn’t take school seriously, so they ended up in the same place where they began. She, however, always excelled in school. In June, she was valedictorian of her senior class at Newark’s East Side High School. Her mother always instilled in her the value of education, telling her to study hard so that "you don’t wind up back in this neighborhood."

Now that she earned a place in NJIT's freshman class, Deliris's future is bright. She was one of 125 students to graduate Aug. 1 from what is known colloquially as boot camp, the six-week summer enrichment program run by the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). If she continues to study hard and graduates from NJIT, her earning potential will be great; she’ll likely be able to afford a house for her mother. Boot camp is meant to help incoming EOP students like Deliris –– mostly minority students from city schools and working-class backgrounds –– make the transition from high school to college. EOP is funded by the New Jersey Educational  Opportunity Fund and by NJIT. Other major supporters include Panasonic, the Hess Foundation, Xerox, the Robert Sydney Needham Foundation, and the William Randolph Hearst Endowed Scholarship Fund.

Prepared for College?

Many EOP students were either born abroad or are the children of immigrants. Their parents often left their homelands for America so that their children could be educated here and have better futures. But most of them settled in cities in New Jersey where the public schools are weak.

Deliris, for example, was born in America but her mother was born in Puerto Rico. The family settled in Newark and Deliris attended local public schools. At the time, she thought the schools were fine, but she now realizes otherwise. In boot camp, she struggled with physics, which draws upon math. Her algebra was not up to college par, so she received the first D’s in her life in physics. That left her shaken, but she persevered. 

“Ironically, I struggled the most in my physics class, which is what I want to major in,” she says. “It didn’t scare me away from my major but rather just made me work even harder.”

Education Comes Before All Else

Or consider Lisanyelis Fermin, another first-generation EOP student. She was born in America but her parents were born in the Dominican Republic. They immigrated to America and settled in Union City, N.J. Her father works as supervisor in a factory and her mother works as a home nurse. Lisanyelis, who has four older sisters, attended Union City High School.

She entered boot camp intending to major in electrical engineering, one of NJIT’s toughest majors. But mid-way through camp, she considered changing her major to math education. She also came to the realization that her her high school left her unprepared for college-level math and science. In camp, she struggled in her computer science class and found it hard to contend with the constant pressure and stress of boot camp. In high school, she’d do her homework but no one checked it. In boot camp, it was closely checked. She also missed her social life. When she went home for weekends she had no time to see friends: Her homework demanded all her attention. And when she returned to the NJIT dorm on Sunday evenings, she missed her constant companion – her cell phone, which boot camp bans. Nonetheless she did well in camp and, though her parents speak Spanish at home, she won an award for excellence in English.

“My parents didn’t have the opportunity to attend college and they always told me that education comes before all else,” says Lisanyelis. “The summer classes have given me a leg up on my studies and I think I’m prepared for college. People told me I’d have to work a lot harder in college than in high school, but I had to experience that for myself.  Boot camp has been an eye-opener for me.”

An Eye-Opener to the Rigors of College

Boot camp is an eye opener for most of the campers. They live in the dorm and attend classes all day. After a quick dinner, their evenings are rife with mandatory homework and tutoring and study sessions, after which it’s lights out at midnight. No cell phones, no TV and no social life aside from group study. Breakfast is at 7 a.m. and classes go from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with five minute breaks between them. The students go home on weekends, but are saddled with reams of homework, which is due Monday morning. It’s a rigorous and intense six weeks – a preview of college life that introduces them to the demands of a nationally-ranked university.

As the six weeks of boot camp progress and the stress builds, a buddy system develops among the students -- a sense of esprit de corps, the realization that they're all in this together. It’s just like the buddy system in the Army: If one solider doesn’t watch out for the others, the entire platoon is imperiled. The students form study groups and fast friendships that last throughout the summer and carry over into NJIT. Sometimes, those friendships last for life.

If they make it through boot camp--get through physics, math and English--the reward is great: They gain admittance to NJIT. The university becomes for them an avenue to a sound education, a great job and social mobility. First, though, they must get the degree, and boot camp schools them in the notion that it’s one for all and all for one. It’s a street cliché that’s much abused: “I got your back.” But for these students that phrase is a reality. They have each other’s backs and they’ll get through NJIT together.

NJIT is nationally ranked for graduating minority engineers, and a main reason for that distinction is EOP. The program has a high retention rate, which means that a vast majority of its students graduate from NJIT. The nation and the state of New Jersey desperately need more engineers and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers: EOP helps meet that need. Moreover, most engineers and STEM workers in the nation are white. EOP also helps to diversify the STEM work force. That’s especially impressive when one realizes that most students come to boot camp unprepared for college. So how do they make it through?

Get by with a Little Help from my Mentors

First, to say that the teachers at boot camp are dedicated would be a masterpiece of understatement. Most of them have taught in boot camp for decades and have a talent for unleashing the potential in their students. This summer’s closing boot camp ceremony, for example, was dedicated to the late Martin Katzen, a beloved NJIT math professor who over the decades taught thousands of incoming EOP students to excel in math. They came into his class with a slender grasp of algebra; they left NJIT with a mastery of calculus. Many of Katzen’s students went on to graduate with honors and have good careers. Many of them kept in touch with Katzen; some of them even invited him to their weddings. He meant that much to them. If not for Katzen, some of them might have wound up on the street. Because of Katzen, some of them wound up on Wall Street. Others wound up earning doctoral degrees and teaching in college or working as researchers.  

Tony Howell, the nationally recognized director of EOP, has also attended many EOP weddings. He and Katzen actually attended a few weddings together. If Katzen -- funny, brilliant and warm-hearted -- was the epitome of a great math professor, Howell is the epitome of a charismatic leader. In the eyes of his EOP students, Howell is a monumental figure -- a former Green Beret and college basketball player who uses a brew of tough love and fatherly solicitude to ensure that they succeed. And to those students like Deliris who grew up in single-parent homes, Howell is a surrogate father, a drill sergeant with a heart of gold who goads and prods and motivates them to excel. If they make a mistake, he’ll discipline them. But when they do right, he’ll love them like his own. Many EOP students don’t call him Mr. Howell: They call him “Dad.”

"I've heard about upper-middle-class kids whose parents buy them condos when they leave for college," says Howell. "So they don't have to live in the dorms or so they can live large in college.I don't know, that's not my thing and it's cool. But I do know that my EOP students -- my children -- often work a job or two and study round the clock so that they can get that degree. Every fall, they come into my office, sit in that chair, look me in the eye and say: 'Mr. Howell, I'm going to make it through this school. And when I do, the first thing I'll do is buy my mom a house.' Now that's the the kind of students I'm talking about. Is it any wonder that I and my staff we will do anything in our power to help them?"

Working for Howell is a dedicated staff of tutors, teaching assistants, residence hall assistants and EOP counselors who together build a bridge that ushers the students from high school to college. Boot camp is a two-way bridge: It asks the students to work harder than they’ve worked before, but it offers them all the support they need. In the words of Nina Pardi, an English teacher who has taught in boot camp for a decade: “These kids walk into boot camp as high school students and six weeks later walk out as college students.”

Working Hard to Overcome Obstacles

Jake Campbell, a sophomore at NJIT who majors in biomedical engineering, worked as a residence hall assistant during boot camp. He lived in the dorm with the campers and helped them adjust to living away from home for the first time. Some of the students came to camp clinging to their high school mentalities, said Campbell, and EOP student who was himself in boot camp last summer. They’d do their work at the last minute, expecting to slide through boot camp the way they slid through their senior year of high school. But after two weeks, the campers began to change. They bought into the buddy system. They grew up. They matured. 

“Over the last few weeks of the summer I saw the students grow,” said Campbell. “This group has worked unbelievably hard to prove that they are NJIT material. Many came here unprepared for college life but they are well on their way to becoming amazing students. What these students have accomplished was entirely their choice. Day and night I saw them working together to understand an enormous amount of work.”

A Second Family Called EOP

Robert Brown attended a fairly good high school: Piscataway. He also has a strong relationship with his mother, Dwen, an administrative assistant who always emphasized education at home. He thus entered boot camp with confidence. But after a week of semi-sleepless nights, he realized he wasn’t going to get through it alone. During the second week of camp, he bonded with his dorm-mates and buckled down. After the homework sessions ended at 10 p.m., they’d study together in each other’s rooms until lights out. They’d also sit together during lunch and dinner and help each other. Brown said his weakest subject is English, but his friends encouraged him to work hard and not to miss the constant deadlines that define boot camp.

“The resident assistants and the tutors were really cool and helped us a lot,” said Brown, who will major in computer engineering in the fall. “Boot camp is the best decision I ever made in my life because it showed me exactly what college will be like in the fall. And I now have two families behind me: my real family and my EOP family. With their support and love, I know I can hold my own in college.”

Dwen came to see Robert graduate from boot camp in a two-hour ceremony held in the Jim Wise Theater. She sat beaming in the audience with her two younger children at her side. Afterward, she said Robert was always a good child and an excellent student. Ever since middle school, she added, he always wanted to attend NJIT -- his dream school. EOP was thus a great way for him to enter his dream university.

 “I’m just ecstatic to see him graduate from boot camp," said Dwen, wiping a runaway tear from her cheek. “He’s my oldest and my first in college. And in four years I look forward to seeing him graduate from NJIT.”

NJIT President Joel Bloom spoke at the closing ceremony, watching as the 125  graduates received their certificates. Over the course of his long and distinguished career at NJIT, Bloom has been EOP's biggest champion, working with Howell to ensure that the program not only succeeds but flourishes. This is what Bloom said to the graduates:

"When you enter NJIT in the fall keep your eyes on the prize -- an NJIT degree," said Bloom. "You'll have to study many hours a day to succeed at NJIT, but if you do, the reward is great. NJIT graduates are among the best paid in the nation -- the demand for STEM employees is greater than the supply. Get involved at NJIT, work on research projects that improve society, solve problems that help people lead better lives. And most importantly, always keep your eyes on the prize: the degree. Congratulations and I look forward to getting to know all of you over the next four years."

By Robert Florida