Meet Robert Herrera: Winner of the Presidential Leadership Award

Presidential Leadership Award recipient Robert Herrara

In his early years at NJIT, it was not uncommon for Robert Herrera to spend the wee small hours of the morning sequestered in an architecture studio, studying.  Then, as the sun rose and the morning light filtered through the window, he'd race to his dorm, dress in his soccer uniform and dash over to the soccer field.  As captain of the soccer team, he couldn't be late for 6 a.m. practice.  But as an architect major, he had to get his school work done.  So he pulled his fair share of all nighters.            

The sleepless nights didn’t faze him.  He was sacrificing sleep for the two things in life he most loved: architecture and soccer.

“During my freshman and sophomore years I’d pull some all nighters,” recalls Robert, now a fifth-year master’s student at NJIT.  “I’d go to practice and then nap in the locker room or on the bus to a game.  I didn't mind it.  I was doing what I loved.”

NJIT has a first-rate architecture school and a Division l soccer team.  Not many universities offer both, and that’s why Robert, a bright student and talented soccer player, chose NJIT.  It was a good choice, for he has excelled here, both in the classroom and on the field.       

He entered NJIT as a scholar in the Albert Dorman Honors College, which accepts only top students.  He has four scholarships, some for sports and some for academics.  And though his athletic eligibility is up, for four years he was captain of the men’s soccer team.  He was one of the first players recruited by Coach Pedro Lopes to play Division 1 soccer.   

Captaining the soccer team and majoring in architecture is like having two full-time jobs.  But Robert found time to do take on other leadership positions.  He worked as a Resident Assistant (RA) on a dormitory floor reserved for architecture majors, where he helped incoming architecture majors adjust to college life, and he also trained young RAs.  An environmentalist, he established a recycling program in the dormitories and in the fraternities.  Using his architecture skills, Robert and a group of fellow students helped the city of Newark derive solutions for a new mass transit system.  In recognition of all his hard work, NJIT recently gave Robert the Presidential Leadership Award.  The award is given annually to a student who has shown outstanding leadership skills.

In this interview, Robert talks about architecture, soccer, his leadership roles and how he’s been able to achieve so much during his days -- and sleepless nights -- at NJIT.

How did you first get interested in architecture?
Ever since I was young I've had an interest in architecture.  But I started thinking seriously about architecture after I received encouragement from a high school teacher.  He taught architectural drawing and graphics and he encouraged me to take his class. It was a great decision to take that class.  As a teacher, he really gave a great introduction into architecture.  I enjoyed the drafting and the creative freedom of the class.  He was strict about drawings and you’d often get your work back with red ink strewn over a drawing that you had agonized over.  However, when you did complete a "good" drawing to his standards, it was a great feeling, and by the end of the course I began to understand what he was looking for.  He became a big influence in my life; he helped me decided on architecture as a major and helped me apply to architecture schools.

What do you like best about architecture?
It involves problem solving, which I like. But architecture also involves creativity, like the arts.  So it’s a good major for me since I enjoy both analytical thinking and the arts.  I also enjoy the sense of accomplishment you feel after finishing an architecture project, especially after putting a lot of work into it.  I really enjoy designing, whether it is something small-scale like furniture design, or something larger, even on a city-wide scale.

You are a fifth-year student doing a master's in infrastructure planning (MIP). Can you talk about that?
I joined the program originally to broaden my understanding of cities and urban life.  I felt that the master’s would give me a good background in architecture and planning and help my career.  The classes I've taken for the major have really changed my understanding of infrastructure planning, architecture and transportation systems.  I like architecture best, but the master's has broadened my horizons by teaching me about how cities function, how transit systems work and how urban neighborhoods develop over time. 

You worked two summer internships at an architecture firm in Manhattan called EPoc Partnership.  What did you do there and how'd you get the job?
One of the great things about the School of Architecture is that so many professors are working architects.  During my sophomore year, I took a class with Professor David Ennis, who owns EPoc.  I did well in his class and at the end of the semester he offered me a summer internship.  In my time working there, I've been introduced to new technologies and new sustainable products and systems.  I have worked on everything from large-scale building competitions to small-scale interiors and furniture design.  I did two summer internships at EPoc, and worked there during the school year, too, when Dave needed help.  Over the years, he has become a great friend and a fabulous mentor to me. Even when I am not working in his office, I'll stop by to ask him questions, borrow books, and hang out with him.

Can you talk about your family background? Your father is Mexican and your mother is Irish-American. 
My father immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when he was in his early twenties.  He grew up in a poor family and he was the only one of his six siblings to get a college degree.  He was attending a college in Mexico when he met my mother, who was in Mexico learning Spanish. My mother is a director of special education for a school district in Milford, Delaware, and my father works as an accountant.  My mom has always been a big influence on my academic career.  She always stayed on top of me in school and made sure my extra curricular activities did not distract me from getting a strong education.  Throughout my high school and college education, though, my parents have allowed me to make my own decisions. They've been very open to any ideas or directions I have taken. I'm grateful to them for that.

Since your father struggled to get a college degree, did he push you to do well in school?
Well, because my father came from a poor family and struggled to get an education he never lets me take for granted the opportunities I've been given. As much as he pushed me to pursue soccer, he always stressed the priority of school, especially the importance of getting a college education.  My mother is the same way when it comes to school.  She has always stressed the importance of education. She recently completed her doctorate, which was exciting for our entire family.  I guess my parents influenced me more by what they did than what they said.  They started off with very little and worked incredibly hard to get where they are today -- providing great examples for my brother and me to follow.

Did you get your interest in soccer from your father?
I did get a love of soccer from my father.  He was a great soccer player who has always had a passion for the game.  He's played all his life and still plays in adult leagues.  He got me and my brother into soccer when we were three or four years old.  He never really forced us to play; he rather just showed us what a beautiful game it can be.  I am glad he did, since soccer has been such a big part of my life.  My brother and I have been fortunate enough to travel around the world (Brazil, Mexico and Europe) fairly inexpensively because we played for travel teams and were involved in several national youth programs.  Presently, he and my mom live in Dover, Delaware, but that did not stop them from driving up to catch NJIT play.  For the past four years, my parents have driven three hours each way to see my soccer games (Which is better then the five hours they used to drive to watch my brother play for Hartwick College).

Pedro Lopes, the soccer coach, says he'll never forget how you always encouraged your teammates to do well in their classes as well as in soccer.  
My freshman year at NJIT was a big year for varsity athletics.  It was the first year NJIT had gone Division I.  Right away, coach Lopes threw me into a leadership role by making me captain.  He really expected a lot from me, and I am glad he did.  It was not easy being a young captain of a team and fighting for respect from upperclassmen.  So right from the beginning, I had to not only play well but set an example for the other players through hard work, responsibility, and good behavior both on and off the field.  Then after taking care of myself, I did my best to keep tabs on some of the other players.  A lot of them may have been a little less focused on their academics, but overall our team has done fairly well academically.

And how was working as a resident assistant in the dorms?
As a junior, I decided to become a Resident Assistant. My friends encouraged me to do this, as did Humberto "Humby" Baquerizo, the assistant director of Greek life. (Humby also helped me to take another job on campus: Manager of the Campus Center, which I enjoyed).  But I became an RA on the architecture floor in Cypress Hall.  It was really a great experience. Working with the residents in architecture studio, and hanging out with them in the dormitories took up a lot of my time, along with soccer.  But the students who lived on my floor were great.  Being an RA was a lot of fun so that it didn’t seem like a burden.  I enjoyed helping the new architecture students with their work and helping them adjust to a demanding major.  I live now in an off-campus apartment building in Newark. But I keep in touch with the students who lived on my floor; that's a great feeling.

What do you plan to do after you get your master's in May?
Actually I'm not sure.  I have some ideas but I don't want to lock myself into one thing.  I hope to travel for a while after I graduate.  After that, I'd like to work for an architecture firm, probably one based in Manhattan.  I'm anxious to move on and complete my required hours of working in the architecture field. Then I'll take my licensing exam. But that is a long way off.

Do you feel like you've gotten a good education at NJIT?
I feel I've received a strong education here at NJIT.  I've had several terrific professors throughout my time here who have been influential and helpful.  I really have enjoyed how close NJIT is to Manhattan.  Also, NJIT unlike most other schools, allowed me to play soccer at a high level and get a great accredited architecture degree.  I have also learned valuable time management skills juggling between soccer and architecture and being a resident assistant.  My education here at NJIT has provided me with a number of different opportunities that I never expected when I first arrived here. So overall I’m glad I made the decision of coming here.

Last question: Do you have fond memories of your all nighters?
Haha.  I enjoy sleep, and all nighters are never much fun when done out of necessity.  But there were some fun times, such as watching fellow students skateboard down the ramp of the architecture school in the early hours of the morning just to keep awake; or messing with my fellow architect majors as they fell asleep in their studio desks.  Also, a late-night run to the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark to grab some food from Altas Horas was always a highlight of the night.  Altas Horas is a 24-hour Brazilian sandwich shop that serves heaping portions of delicious inexpensive food to hungry, sleep-deprived yet happy students.  

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)