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Tea with Alumni

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Nicolas Arango

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Three and a half years ago director of the Littman Architecture Library Maya Gervits, was talking with a student when an idea struck. The student had expressed how she wanted to know the experience of previous students who had studied at NJIT’s Hillier College of Architecture and Design (HCAD). Following this conversation, Maya founded the intimate and inspiring Tea with Alumni program where selected HCAD alumni are invited to return to discuss with current students and faculty how their careers have progressed since graduation.  

Opening the event, Maya Gervits explained the importance for creating such a program. “We wanted our students to learn that there are many different paths they can choose, that their education provides a very solid background and this is up to them to take the initiative and be entrepreneurial in finding the work that makes them happy.” 

 Accompanying the great conversations are equally great tea and cookies supplied, incentives to encourage the passerby student to come by and listen. 

Prior to the digital meetings brought upon by COVID-19, many of the alumni that returned to talk were local to the NJ/NY area. Because of the cultural significance of New York City, many HCAD alumni have crossed the Hudson River and established design careers either with prominent companies such as BIG or created their own firms.  

Many alumni have also stayed in New Jersey and have pursued a career outside architecture. Last year, one of the most talked-about alumni was Leslie Marchio (‘06). After leaving an architectural firm, she founded Four Peas and a Dog, a cookie-art company. Students, faculty and alumni alike crowded the space to manage a bite of these cookies.  

However, interactions like these have now been replaced with a digital alternative which comes with its own positives and negatives. While no one will be able to feast upon the titular tea and cookies anymore, this year’s digital medium has allowed us to reach alumni who would otherwise never have had the ability to return physically to NJIT. The latest program featured alumni who currently are living in the Cabo Verde islands, United Arab Emirates and Austria.  

We listened to how Nandy Lima advocates for eco-feminism as a means of sustainability on island countries, Dr. Fathia Elmenghawi’s research on the intersection of public spaces, Muslim culture, and women, and finally Dr. Marin Kaftan’s technological innovations with AI and Czech’s new Antarctic polar station. Each speaker made it a point to show just how impactful NJIT was in their careers and that current students should take every opportunity the school offers them. Addressing a question about entering adjacent architecture fields, Lima encouraged undergraduate students to experiment with courses to see what they like now and take those skills wherever they go. “I actually took some classes at NJIT itself that also helped me a lot to build my baggage for when I studied in my master’s.” 

In our conversation Maya emphasized that as much as this program is for the benefit of current students, it is also meant to be a reminder on how proud the NJIT community is of the alumni. “We want our alumni to feel that NJIT is their home and that we are proud of their accomplishments and are always interested to learn more about their journey and successes.”  Maya hopes that the stories presented by the alumni will inspire students to create change and possibly return one day to inspire another generation of designers.