Indira’s Odyssey: From Cuba to NJIT

Indira Hernandez, NCE's Outstanding Civil Engineering Student

When Indira Hernandez was in high school in Cuba, she and her classmates spent the afternoons working in the fields, helping the local farmers pick oranges, water potatoes and sow the fields. After happily working like this for three hours, they'd return to school. 

Hers was an elite boarding school intent on shaping students into the “future leaders of the revolution.” And future leaders, school officials thought, needed to work with their hands – not just with their minds. Indira had a first-rate mind and she excelled in school. It was a rigorous boarding school that focused on math and science -- her favorite subjects. And her mother, a civil engineer, helped her with her homework. In summers, when school was out, Indira would oftentimes go with her mother to work.  And though the construction sites were messy, Indira loved to watch the buildings gradually emerge. It wasn't long before she decided that she, too, wanted to be a civil engineer.  And, as a straight A student, she was on track to attend one of Cuba’s top colleges. Her future was bright.

But then one day, her life turned dark.

Her parents told her and her younger sister that the family had to leave Cuba for political reasons. Soon, she and her family were on a plane to Miami; a day later, they were in New Jersey. On the day they arrived in America, Christian Kalonji, who then worked as a case worker for the International Rescue Committee, (IRC), met the Hernandezes at the airport. It was cold outside -- this was February of 2002 -- and the family arrived with little but the coats on their backs. 

The Cuban government let them leave the island, but before they did government officials stripped them of their possessions. They had no relatives in America. Kalonji spent six months helping them. He found them an apartment in Elizabeth, N.J. and helped Indira, who was midway through her sophomore year, and her sister, register at Elizabeth High School.  It wasn’t just that Elizabeth High was imposingly large. Or that her family had been uprooted, deprived of its possessions and baffled by a new culture. The single biggest obstacle Indira faced was English: She didn’t speak English. How could she excel in her new school, and show her teachers how bright she was, without having the words to express herself?

Hard work: that’s how she did it. She devoted more time to mastering English than she did to math and science.  Soon, she was once again an A student.  She later graduated from Elizabeth High with a 3.9 GPA; she ranked 23rd in a graduating class of 1,003 students. And here at NJIT her accomplishments have been legion. Recently, the Newark College of Engineering (NCE) named her its Outstanding Senior in Civil Engineering. The Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) gave her an Outstanding Achievement Award for being the senior with the highest GPA: a 3.8. She is an Albert Dorman Honors College scholar as well as a McNair scholar. 

Indira, who has four university scholarships, is also co-captain of the Steel Bridge Team.  She’s a former President of the NJIT Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and she worked as both Teaching Assistant and a Research Assistant at NJIT. She also interned with Mueser Rutledge, a top consulting engineering firm in Manhattan.

In the below interview, Indira talks about her journey to America, the obstacles she faced and how she achieved so much at NJIT. 

How did you wind up at NJIT?
The Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) staff here really opened the doors of college for me. My SATs were horrible. I took the SAT’s after being in America just two years. My English was poor. And I even did poorly on the math section. The SAT exam tested how quickly you came up with an answer but not how intelligent you are. Thankfully, the EOP staff places more value on grades.

Did the EOP staff recruit you?
I recall one day when I was a senior in high school, I received a letter from Carlos Ontaneda, the EOP recruiter. In his letter he wrote something like: “Are you the brightest student at your school?” I read about NJIT’s civil engineering department and I immediately applied. I vividly remember my first meeting with Mr. Tony Howell, EOP’s director. I was visiting the campus with my mother and when Mr. Ontaneda showed my grades to Mr. Howell, the expression on his face said everything.  “Are you kidding me,” he said to me, with a smile, "you’re in this program." If not for EOP, and its generous scholarship, I might have chosen another college. My family was struggling at the time and the scholarship was a huge relief. And during my time at NJIT, the EOP staff has become like a big extended family to me. They are incredible.  

Was it difficult starting over in America?
I can’t explain how hard it was to start all over again from scratch. The first two years here in America were gloomy and indifferent to me. It is a period of my life that I refuse to remember. We didn’t have any relatives here in America. During my first summer here, I took a math class at a local community college. I wanted so badly to do well. I knew the answers to the questions the teacher asked, but I couldn't explain myself. I would raise my hand and cast about in my mind for the right words; but they didn’t come. It was so frustrating and embarrassing. I left the class in tears and called my mother on the phone to come and get me. My mother came to pick me up. She had just gotten a car and she didn’t understand the neutral gear on the stick shift; cars in Cuba don’t have that. It was funny and it’s a good memory for me. My mother also didn't know English. So it took us awhile just to figure out how to put the car in gear. I never went back to that class.  

How did you learn English?
Learning English has definitely been my greatest challenge. I had to put more time into learning English than in studying engineering. I always feel like I have a huge gap in my English and I’m always trying my best to improve my grammar and pronunciation. Sometimes I get tired and disappointed, but I remind myself how much I have accomplished and how much more I need to succeed. Being an immigrant just made my high school and college experience harder at first, since I had to learn a new culture and a new language. I’m always trying to improve my English, which will always be “Mi talon de Aquiles” (my Achilles’ heel). 

How did high school in America differ from your high school in Cuba?
I came to the United States when I was 17 years old. I went to Elizabeth High School for two and a half years. Definitely it is a different education system than in Cuba. You can talk politics with almost every Cuban you meet, and many will tell their views on how to solve the great political problems of the world. The reason is the strong political orientation of the schools: communism versus capitalism, Marxism and Leninism, about which I can hardly recall a thing. Other than that, though, the education I received in Cuba was excellent.

Your mother was a civil engineer in Cuba. Did she influence your decision to study civil engineering?
I have always admired my mother. I spent my childhood summers visiting construction sites with her, and although the sites were messy, I loved seeing how the work progressed. One morning I'd see concrete blocks piled on the floor, and the next day the blocks would be part of a wall or a house or a building. So my inclination towards civil engineering became as natural as sleep; you don't fight your sleep. What I like about civil engineering is the ability you have to take a design and plan a 3-D structure that will serve a purpose and a function in a town. And as Co-Captain of the Steel Bridge team here at NJIT, I have experienced what it takes to build a structure from design to construction. I have found my passion: I love to make things happen.

You’ve received a host of awards at NJIT. What motivated you to study so hard?
There are three principles to follow to succeed at school: dedication, determination and passion. If you possess these three characteristics, you can accomplish whatever you’d like. I always knew I was going to get a university education. I never considered the alternative. Higher education, for immigrants and non-immigrants alike, is an avenue to a better life.

What are your thoughts on the Civil Engineering Department? 
I love it. The department has given me a lot of opportunities. I got involved in the American Society of Civil Engineers, and soon after I became president. That helped me develop leadership skills. I was also on the Steel Bridge Team for three years and this year I was named co-captain and helped lead the team in designing the bridge. The professors in the department experience in the field and they don’t limit their teaching to the classroom. They are always available outside of class and eager to answer your questions. Their love of civil engineering is contagious, which makes their teaching a joy. Most of the professors help with projects such as the Steel Bridge Competition and Engineers Without Borders. Prof. Schuring, Prof. Slaughter and Prof. Meegoda are all eagerly involved in such clubs. Their upbeat personalities and positive attitudes help students stay involved. Civil Engineering is a profession that impacts people’s lives in a positive way, and the professors train their students to help build a better society.  

What is your family doing now?
My mother did not want to work here as a civil engineer because of the English barrier. She instead works as a math teacher at Elizabeth High School. She is a great teacher who is loved by her students. All her co-workers joke about how good of a teacher she must be because of the great students her daughters are. She does not regret it at all. She found another vocation in life and she couldn’t be happier. My father is a businessman. I live with my mother and sister in Elizabeth, N.J. I try to support them economically, and when I start working full time I’ll be able to give them even more support. My sister was a student at NJIT. She thought her passion was architecture and wanted to be an architect like my uncle and cousin. But she found her true calling in Art History and Spanish Literature, which she studies at Kean University.

What do you plan to do after you graduate from NJIT?
Upon graduation, I plan to work as a structural or geotechnical engineer and go to graduate school part time. This will allow me to earn my master’s degree in civil engineering while continuing to support my family economically. I’m interviewing now at companies that focus on structuring engineering and foundation engineering. And I have applied to two universities: Columbia University and NJIT. I’m leaning towards staying here at NJIT for my master’s. I love it here and am exceedingly grateful for all the opportunities the university has given me.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)