Twenty Minutes with Jose Alcala

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Sitting on a stool in the middle of an empty laser cutting room, Jose Alcala, a university lecturer and coordinator of the Industrial Design program at NJIT, looks like he is at home. Born in Spain, Alcala moved to Paterson, NJ at a very young age. He claims that this is why he is able to understand his students so well: “I know how the students here think. I was a Jersey kid myself. I understand the whole underdog and ambitious nature.”

Once he graduated high school, Alcala attended a vocational school and worked to help his family. He recalls when idea of going to college first came to mind: “My family was always working pretty hard, and I was just the same. I never had any plans of going to college at all until a coworker of mine told me I wouldn’t have a job at the place I was working at if I didn’t go to college.” Shortly after, Alcala was fired and decided to apply to colleges.

He eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering program at NJIT, but switched over to Architecture two years later after “finding my people”, says Alcala. After moving into the city, Alcala completed a Master’s degree in Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute, where he became a lecturer and thesis advisor for a decade.

Briefly after getting married, moving to Arkansas, and having a son, Alcala moved back to the city and worked at a number of firms before starting his own. When asked about his favorite project, Alcala had trouble picking just one. He ecstatically spoke about a few projects he had done with Ralph Applebaum, a firm focused on exhibit design for major museums around the world.

Alcala was a key member in exhibit design for the National Constitution Center, Dylan’s Candy Bar, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Alcala was able to meet and work with Dolly Parton, an experience Alcala describes as “unreal”. He truly enjoys working on projects that are not meant for mass production; he values variation and challenges. Alcala mentioned that one of the greatest perks of his job is the opportunity to travel all over the world, especially the Americas.
Outside of working for his firms, Alcala helped found the College of Architecture and Design’s industrial design program about a decade ago. He developed and taught many of the courses within the curriculum. His favorite part of teaching is “how frustrating but rewarding” the experience is. He fondly recalls the first graduating class, which included members who are now returning to NJIT to teach for the industrial design program.

Alcala offers simple yet overlooked advice on making the most of the college experience by fostering relationships and maintaining them over time. “I made so many intimate friendships at NJIT around 25 years ago and that’s the best part, because I’m still in touch with so many of them.”

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Prasanna Tati

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