Meet NCE’s Top Mechanical Engineer: Ji Ni

NCE's Top Mechanical Engineer Ji Ni

The Newark College of Engineering (NCE) has a distinguished history of educating first-generation students – students whose parents didn’t attend college.  These students have come to NCE for decades to get solid educations that lead to great jobs, better lives and social mobility.   

Whereas 50 years ago most NCE students traced their roots to Europe; these days their parents or grandparents tend to come from Asia, India or the Middle East.  But no matter their ancestry, the students’ stories remain essentially the same.  Their parents immigrate to America in search of opportunities: better jobs, more freedoms and most importantly, the hope that one day their children might attend an American University.  

Ji Ni is a senior here whose story aptly illustrates this scenario.  

Ji (pronounced Gee) majors in mechanical engineering, one of the college’s most rigorous majors.  He nonetheless maintains a top GPA of 3.88.  He’s excels as a scholar in the Albert Dorman Honors College and is president of NJIT’s Aikido Club (Akido is a Japanese martial art). In recognition of his achievements, NCE recently gave him one of its highest accolades, naming him the Outstanding Senior in Mechanical Engineering.  Each year, NCE gives the award to a senior studying mechanical engineering who has excelled academically.

Ji is also a talented designer whose senior-year project in mechanical engineering showed great ingenuity, says Professor Harry Kountouras.

“Ji is indeed an outstanding student,” says Kountouras.  “As part of a recent design contest, Ji designed a robotically controlled window washer, one that disabled individuals can use.  He did an excellent job on the project, using solid modeling, finite element simulations, electro-mechanical control systems and dynamic design.  He has a great future ahead of him as a mechanical engineer."

Roots in China

Ji has a bright future, but he comes from a humble background.  He was born in a small village in China.  His paternal grandfather worked in the fields and, had his father remained in that village, he might have done the same.  It was a good traditional way of life, but Ji’s father wanted more for his family.  

So when Ji was in first grade, his father left his village for America.  Members of his extended family owned Chinese restaurants in northern New Jersey, where he knew he could find work.  And he did work at the restaurants, eventually saving enough money to bring his family over.  Ji immigrated to American when he was in sixth grade.  He hadn’t seen his father for six years.  But that didn’t faze him.  The only thing that fazed him was English or, more specifically, how to master it.        

He moved in with his uncle, who lived in Tenafly, and enrolled in a middle school there.  The school had an excellent ESL program that improved his English.  He was also quickly excelling in math and science.  A few years later, his parents rented an apartment in Ridgefield, N.J., a few blocks from Ridgefield Memorial High School, which Ji attended.   But after school and on weekends he too worked at the family restaurants -- sometimes 12 hours a day.  He was only 15, but he loved the job.  He made good friends at work and saved money to buy the things he needed. 

“My job was to take the orders from customers, pack the meals for delivery and work the deep fryers,” he says. “Working there was great, maybe the best years of my life.  It taught me to work well under stress and to understand the responsibilities of a job.  I knew, however, that the job had no future and I did not want to end up in a job like this.”

Finding His Way

Ji knew he’d attend college, his parents always encouraged him to do so, but he wasn’t sure what he’d study.  Like most first-generation students, his parents couldn’t help him refine his academic interests and decide what to study.  He had to decide for himself.  When he was a senior in high school, he thought he like to be an architect.  So a school counselor helped him find a summer internship at a local architecture firm.  But during the internship he realized he didn’t want to exclusively design buildings.  He wanted to design different things.  So he gravitated towards mechanical engineering, a field whose practitioners design an array of mechanical devices. After high school, knowing he wanted to study engineering, he applied to NJIT.  His English still wasn’t great but, like so many first-generation students, he studied hard and long and, come May 17, he’ll graduate from NJIT at the top of his senior class.

If he chose, Ji could go out now and find a good job as a mechanical engineer. But first he wants to travel – his favorite thing to do -- in both America and abroad.  He also wants to learn more about mechanical engineering. So he’s applied to some of the top graduate schools in the nation; he’s waiting to hear from them.  He’d like to pursue a master’s degree and perhaps a doctorate. One day, he might like to teach or do research or both.  He’s not sure.

 But what is sure, no matter his decision, is that his future is bright. His parents came here with the hope that their son would lead a better life than they; that an American education would for him be an avenue to social mobility.  Their hopes for him have been realized. 

“My parents always expected me to do well in school,” says Ji, “but they never pushed me the way that I see other parents pushing their children.  They never forced me to play the violin or the piano or to take extra classes on weekends.  I'm thankful to them for that, since the freedom they gave me helped me learn to do things for myself, without people telling me what to do.  I know the only way to become better is through education, which not only helps you achieve a better life economically, but a more fulfilling life.”

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)