Rutgers Class of 2008: Ten Graduates to Watch

Rutgers Class of 2008: Ten Graduates to Watch

Nearly 11,000 students are received their degrees from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, during a week of collegiate convocations beginning May 18 and at the universitywide commencement Wednesday, May 21. Among the graduates are exceptional individuals who have inspirational stories, including an undergraduate whose experiments on injured spinal cords represent a step on the way to a cure, an artist who has captured the burgeoning arts scene in Newark in her documentaries, and a premed student who has organized trips to impoverished regions of the world to promote preventive medicine.

Wajdi Kanj

Hometown: South Plainfield

Major: Biomedical Engineering, School of Engineering

Student Promotes Preventive Medicine in Remote Regions

Wajdi Kanj spent spring break of his junior year with poor city dwellers in the Dominican Republic, treating foot wounds, planting gardens and piecing together puzzles with abused children. Kanj, a premed student, was so inspired by what could be accomplished with such simple remedies that as soon as he got back to Rutgers he began organizing his own trips to promote the benefits of preventive medicine.

Kanj founded the Rutgers chapter of FIMRC (The Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children), a group that provides volunteers with an interest in public health – but no medical degree – the chance to advocate good health regimens in remote corners of the globe. This past January, Kanj and 24 other Rutgers students flew to cities in the mountain and coastal regions of Peru to urge residents to adopt such fundamental practices as brushing their teeth, covering their mouths when they cough and knowing when to wash their hands.

“In this country, as great as it is, we’re living in a bubble. The health standards we enjoy are not the norm,” he said. Kanj said he was particularly satisfied that he was able to enlist not only premed students on the Peru trip, but also history, political science and engineering majors.

Kanj, who is a student representative to the Board of Trustees, will begin medical studies this fall at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, where he hopes to found another FIMRC chapter. The Rutgers chapter has planned a trip to El Salvador this summer.

Stacy Hollingsworth

Hometown: Old Bridge

Major: Psychology, with a minor in Sociology, Rutgers College

Depression Survivor Finds Her Voice in Advocacy

Many students land at college on a wave of exhilarating freedom – to find new friends, new interests and, in some cases, new identities. But Stacy Hollingsworth could only feel the walls closing in. Assailed by bouts of acute depression since she was 13, her despair became so crippling that she was briefly hospitalized that first year. During her sophomore year, she was forced to drop out.

After that calamitous event, she set out on a frustrating, two-year odyssey in search of treatment. More than a dozen medications, electroshock therapy and experimental treatments with magnetic fields and acupuncture proved dead ends. Finally, she found relief in an older-generation medication and gradually recovered.

“I remember thinking that if I survive this – if I ever get out of bed – I want to do something for other people,” Hollingsworth said. “I didn’t know how long the treatment would keep working, and felt that if I wanted to accomplish something, I might have limited time to do it in.”

Soon after she returned to Rutgers full time, she founded a campus chapter of the advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness. In addition to hosting events to raise awareness of mental illness, the group has given its input to campus administrators as they formulate new policies and make psychological services at the university easier to navigate. More recently, she completed an internship with the New Jersey Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma.

Josh Ontell

Hometown: Clifton

Major: Economics, with a minor in English, Rutgers College

Student Urges His Generation to Take on the Big Policy Questions

Josh Ontell has never been content to sit back and let the older generation do all of the thinking. Last year, as a way of engaging his peers, he co-founded the Rutgers chapter of the Roosevelt Institution, a national, campus-based think tank that gives students a forum to weigh in on global, national and local policy issues. In its recent journal, The Roosevelt Institution Policy Journal, Rutgers students took on topics ranging from U.S. election law to funding for higher education to national housing policy.

“Too often we’re doing the grunt work – knocking on doors and organizing the filing cabinets, but our ideas are not being listened to,” Ontell said. “We have to engage young people, because we do have ideas.”

He is just as eager to see these policies translated into action. As a sophomore, Ontell traveled to rural West Virginia to build housing. As a junior, he spent time helping to reconstruct devastated areas of New Orleans. Following graduation, he will spend a year as a program assistant at the Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, a New York high school for nontraditional students between 17 and 21 who plan to earn a full, academic Regents diploma.

“We need to use our education to better our world. And for my generation, that is our charge,” Ontell said.

Robin Laverne Wilson

Hometown: Converse, Texas

Major: Interdisciplinary, with concentrations in media and business, Newark College of Arts and Sciences

Media Student Performs Art, Pursues the Art of the Deal

There is nothing conventional about Robin Laverne Wilson, starting with the unusual academic journey she began at the University of Texas at age 16 and resumed more than a decade later at Rutgers-Newark.

Returning to school in her 30s, she continued to carve her own path, creating an interdisciplinary major that includes MBA-type business seminars, performance art and production internships at underground film festivals.

At this juncture in her life, Wilson had clearer goals, but she had to work her way back to acquire the skills. “As a creative person, I knew I needed the business savvy to create and close deals,” she said. “I needed to empower myself as an artist.”

A Texan with a great love for New York, Wilson was well positioned on the Newark Campus to seize opportunities across the Hudson River. She was an artist-in-residence at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center and held internships at New Line Cinema, the New York Pops, the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival and VH1.

For her senior Honors College project, she started her own production company, “New Growth Media.” She is producing a short documentary about the burgeoning arts scene in Newark and another, more experimental piece on unspoken thoughts among strangers. Last year, she won a Michael S. Libretti Scholarship Award from the New Jersey Broadcasters Association for her earlier work.

Wilson’s goals following graduation are twofold. She plans to start work at a production company while also developing her own projects around what she calls “experimental work, personal work.” As a producer, she hopes for just enough success to “be on stage someday at the Academy Awards.”

Hans Goff

Hometown: Trenton

Master of Public Affairs and Politics, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy

Student of Politics Hones Policy Skills

At 25, Hans Goff already has accumulated the sort of political experience a veteran professional might envy. It stretches across three states, several levels of government and includes stints on campaigns and in policy shops.

Goff started his political career early, landing his first job after his sophomore year in high school. He worked in the office of Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer, answering constituents’ calls on the concerned citizens’ hotline. “My first day working for the mayor, I knew it was the field I wanted to be in,” he said. “I saw how government can work.”

Goff became a serial apprentice, working summers and often after class as a paid intern for U.S. Rep. John Olver of Massachusetts, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, New Jersey Govs. James McGreevey and Jon Corzine, the New Jersey Assembly Majority Office and the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

Now a Fellow at the Eagleton Institute of Politics and enrolled at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Goff finds himself particularly interested in policy. A course on American politics in the fall of 2007 with Joseph Doria, the former New Jersey Assembly leader and mayor of Bayonne, led to an internship several months later with Doria after Corzine tapped the veteran lawmaker to head the state Department of Community Affairs. Goff focused there on affordable housing policy, a field he would like to pursue after he receives his degree.

Nicole Peter

Hometown: Jefferson Township

Major: Public Health, Rutgers College and the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy

Student Researcher Reconciles Science and Religion

Nicole Peter has spent the past two years in the laboratory working with genetically altered mice that may yield important clues some day to one of the most elusive cures. Hobbled by spinal injuries that would normally spell permanent paralysis, the mice were able to recover a great deal of their mobility. What distinguished them from those still incapacitated was the absence of a protein suspected of hindering repair of the barrier that protects the spinal cord.

When an opportunity to conduct research at the W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience arose, Peter did not hesitate, despite misgivings that many of her fellow Catholics have about the center, known for its work on stem cells. Keck researchers work with both embryonic stem cells and those drawn from other sources, such as umbilical cord blood. Peter said she could not feel more passionate about her work.

“I really believe there will be a cure for spinal cord injuries, and I want to contribute,” Peter said. “I have no moral qualms about it, even though I’m very Catholic.”

A member of the Rutgers Catholic Student Association, Peter is trying to enlist scientists who are also practicing Catholics to speak about stem cell research at one of the group’s “Spirit Night” gatherings next fall. Her aim is to let the scientists explain both their research and what it means to be a Catholic and still support stem cell research. Even though she will have graduated, Peter plans to return for the discussion.

“We need to change this disconnect,” she said. “Both sides really care about humanity but are afraid the other side is limiting them. It’s a matter of closing this polarity.”

Paul Stuart Wichansky

Hometown: Freehold

Doctorate in Environmental Science, Graduate School-New Brunswick

Disability Doesn’t Keep Meteorologist from Covering New Jersey’s Landscape

Paul Stuart Wichansky remembers the jolt he experienced when he left his one-building high school to begin college life at Rutgers.

“The transition was overwhelming,” recalled Wichansky, who was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination. “I couldn’t walk too well. There were so many buildings, and they were so far apart.”

But with the help of vans and accommodating professors, he adapted – so well, in fact, that he stayed on at Rutgers for two degrees in meteorology and a third in environmental science, focusing on the impact that historical landscape changes have on weather patterns. A 17-foot-map of the state prepared by Professor George H. Cook – who spent nine years in the 1880s crisscrossing the state to document land cover and climbing church steeples to make sure his latitude and longitude were correct – provided a critical window on the past. While Wichansky couldn’t repeat Cook’s journey, he could digitize the map. That effort alone took him two years.

“The landscape in New Jersey has changed so drastically,” Wichansky said. In fact, farmland in the state sharply declined from 2.9 million acres in 1880 to 848,000 acres by 1992, he said. Simultaneous expansion of urban land cover, he added, has increased surface air temperatures, reduced surface dew points and further decreased cloud cover in some parts of the state.

But Wichansky has not pursued science single-mindedly. Starting at age 10, he has devoted a significant chunk of time away from academics to motivational speaking, encouraging students to overcome their own challenges.

Twenty-seven years later, he has added material to his presentation, such as a favorite anecdote about his 12,000-foot parachute plunge out of an airplane. “Disabilities are situational,” Wichansky said. “Think of a football player on a soccer field.’’

Todd Miller

Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pa.

Master of Business Administration, Rutgers School of Business-Camden

(Contact: Mike Sepanic: 856-225-6026 or

MBA Student Redefines Distance Learning

Students know the value of a Rutgers MBA degree is worth the rigorous coursework and the effort. It can also be worth the trip. Just ask Todd Miller, who logged a cumulative 10,500 miles by airplane and car to complete his master of business administration degree at the Rutgers School of Business-Camden.

Miller’s commute to Rutgers for his weekly “Strategic Management” class started in Pittsburgh, where he serves as sales manager for Howard Hanna Mortgage Services. He would leave his Pittsburgh office at 2 p.m., catch a 4 p.m. flight to Philadelphia and then rent a car to arrive on campus by 6 p.m.

“Looking back, it’s odd how the extraordinary can turn into a mere routine,” Miller said. “Dinner often consisted of free bottled water from the rental car company and the finest pretzels or cheese and crackers that one can find in a Rutgers vending machine.”

Miller started his Rutgers MBA in 2001 and was transferred by his employer to Pittsburgh in 2004. After breaks in his coursework following his relocation and the births of two sons, Miller decided to complete his MBA. (He and his wife, Kristin, now have three children: Hayden, 6, Gavin, 4, and Paige, 11 months.) He was able to take some courses locally and others through Rutgers’ independent study program, but he was required on campus for an evening course during the final semester.

“I wanted to make sure I could always look my children in the eye and tell them to finish what you start and that education is important,” Miller said. “What better way to teach than to set the example for them?”

Karina Martinez

Hometown: Lyndhurst

Major: Criminal Justice, with minors in Africana Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers College

Student’s Passion for Social Work Takes Her to Africa and Back Again

Early in her college career, Karina Martinez discovered her calling in social work.

Her passion to help those in need would take her from a battered women’s shelter in New Brunswick to work with illegal child domestic workers in Ghana to Legal Services of New Jersey in Edison.

For Martinez, the key to effective advocacy in these diverse settings is the personal connections, particularly in Ghana last summer when she researched child labor laws to develop workshops on human rights for parents of child domestic workers.

“You can’t just get a restraining order. You really had to get to know and understand these people before you could help them,” she said of the Ghanaian families she came to know last summer. Of her current work for Legal Services, much of it with recent immigrants, she added, “It’s so important to be personal with your client.”

Along the way, the native Peruvian has found time to advise fellow minority students, join the Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority and the Institute for Women’s Leadership, and complete a research project comparing domestic abuse victims in Ghana and the United States by looking closely at what factors influenced whether women in these countries reached out for help. She also packed in seven courses some semesters.

Martinez will be returning to Rutgers next year to begin work on a master’s degree in social work, and after that, she plans to apply to law school.

Morgan Page

Hometown: Houston, Texas

Master of Fine Arts, with a concentration in photography and video arts, Mason Gross School of the Arts

Photographer Looks Through Lens and Sees Herself

Morgan Page realized early in her career that merely photographing people or places was not enough. What intrigued her were the revelations about her subjects – and herself – that arose from the exchanges before and after snapping her pictures. Soon after she arrived at Rutgers in 2006 to begin a master’s degree at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, she took to the streets of Newark to pursue her evolving brand of interactive art.

What resulted was a series of self-portraits in Polaroid – Page in Newark’s downtown financial district, in the Ironbound and Clinton Hill neighborhoods, and at the Baxter Terrace housing project. All were taken by people she met on her walks around the city, such as “Big Mama Moe” and 6-year-old Zanjeia. The photographs won her a coveted berth in January as an artist-in-residence in the Newark Museum’s Adolf Konrad Residency Program, for which she produced two videos of her Newark experience.

Morgan initially was interested in photographing people with whom she had no ethnic or cultural connection until a would-be subject challenged her. “He kept asking me why I wanted to take his picture. This brought up all of the complications of photographing people. And I questioned what I, and the people I showed them to, took away from these pictures. What purpose is there in an image without a dialogue?”

Page is one of four students this spring to receive from Mason Gross a Paul Robeson Emerging Young Artist Award for outstanding achievement in the visual arts. This summer, she will be teaching video editing to high school students at Seton Hall University and Columbia University. She plans to apply for a New Jersey State Council on the Arts grant to study the relationship between urban communities and trees, and hopes to return to Newark.

Media Contact: Steve Manas
732-932-7084 ext. 612