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A Matter of Choice

Photo by Daryl Stone

A Matter of Choice

A new program takes aim at Newark’s best and brightest.

By Michael L. Diamond

Angie Feliz, a star civil engineering student at New Jersey Institute of Technology, had internship offers on the table the summer after her junior year from Jacobs Engineering in high-flying Manhattan and old-fashioned public utility PSE&G in South Plainfield. Most 20-somethings drawing up a list of pros and cons likely would have leaned toward New York City…but PSE&G had a secret advantage.

“PSE&G is what I know,” Feliz says. “We all get PSE&G bills in Newark. It felt right.”

Now if only Public Service Electric and Gas, if only Newark, if only New Jersey could replicate Feliz’s story.

To that end, business and government leaders are rolling out a pilot project called Smart Students Choose New Jersey, offering top-ranked high school students in Newark and Camden who go to college in state a $2,000 scholarship and paid summer internships for three years. They want to prevent the Garden State’s best and brightest from wandering away, never to return home, and reverse a troubling trend that hurts taxpayers and the economy.

In purely financial terms, the equation is simple. New Jersey taxpayers spend more than $17,000 a year per student— an investment that can be written off with each student that leaves to go to college and takes a job in another state. But in Newark, advocates say the program could represent even more than that.

A LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

“I think it starts kids and young people beginning to see that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, there’s hope out there somewhere,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka says. “That the end of the road is not a bunch of bills and poverty and pain, that there are people that actually pay attention to folks that are successful.”

Photo by Daryl Stone

In Newark, where the median household income of $33,960 is less than half the statewide average (according to the U.S. Census Bureau), students vying for the scholarships and internships don’t necessarily come from two-parent families. And even if they do, their parents aren’t necessarily engineers who instilled in them at an early age that they could build bridges if they wanted, that they could do anything and be anybody.

Indeed, even if that is their background, like Angie Feliz, they have complicated lives. Feliz, 25, was born in Cuba and moved to the Dominican Republic at the age of 4. When she was 16, she moved with her parents and younger sister to Newark, where they had a cousin, to find a better life. She attended Barringer High School. She learned English quickly. She spent a summer at NJIT as part of a group of promising high school students. And she graduated No. 2 in her class, disappointed that she wasn’t No. 1.

Colleges knocked down her door. She had scholarship offers from colleges in New Jersey, New York and Boston. But she couldn’t enroll until she received a Social Security number— one that was delayed while her immigration status was finalized. So Feliz turned to Essex County College. She helped pay her own way by working at the Rainbow clothing store and as a receptionist at State Farm. And she studied. After 2½ years, she transferred to NJIT, which had always been her first choice.

Photo by Daryl Stone

In hindsight, she could always see a pathway out. “We need to empower students,” Feliz says. “I came from a low-income background. We struggled, and I went to a low-income high school where all the kids are lost and getting into trouble and no one is thinking about school….Everything they see around them is failure. They don’t see what else is out there.”

Yet, for students like Feliz, there is no limit. The Ivy League has scholarships to offer. Cutting-edge companies in Manhattan and Boston and Silicon Valley can offer six- or even seven-figure salaries. New Jersey’s top students are quicker than most to jump at these opportunities in what has become a brain drain. One-third of the state’s high school graduates—about 35,000 a year—go out of state to college, according to leaders from Choose New Jersey, an economic development group. The state spends the fourth-most per student in the nation. Yet it has the fourth-lowest rate of keeping them in state after they graduate, they said.

It could be viewed a sign that students who grow up in New Jersey can’t wait to flee such a godforsaken place—to where boundless opportunity, bucolic campuses and lower taxes await. However, other factors might be at work. Students with higher SAT scores, for example, are more likely to venture farther for college, according to a study by Niche, an education web site.

TROUBLING CONSEQUENCES

Courtesy of PSE&G

“I admit that I worry that without substantial job growth and taxable revenue growth, our newly minted college graduates will not come back to Newark to deploy their talents as part of the city’s renaissance,” says Don Katz, chief executive officer and founder of Audible.com, a fast-growing audio book company based in Newark. “I worry that job training and prison re-entry programs and exciting new construction will not create the comeback that can happen in Newark unless new jobs are created at all levels—along with rising prosperity that serves all citizens.”

Choose New Jersey’s leaders gathered on a frigid January day at Audible’s sleek headquarters and introduced Smart Students Choose New Jersey. It will offer scholarships and internships to the top-ranked seniors at Newark’s 33 (and Camden’s 11) public, private and charter high schools. If the student goes out of state for college, the offer would go to the next in line.

Employers will pay the interns at least $12 an hour the first year. They’ll cover transportation costs. And students can try out different companies. Participating are employers such as Audible, PSE&G, Prudential and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.

“What I love about this program is it’s simply saying we are going to find, identify and support children, whether it’s a handful or—as it scales—a significant number, and get them launched into adulthood, ready for life with that extra boost,” says Chris Cerf, superintendent of Newark Public Schools.

“I don’t just mean the money,” he adds. “The money’s great. I mean access to summer work, and access to understanding the workplace and understanding what it means to be successful.”

There are hurdles. At the kickoff event, Ralph LaRossa, PSE&G’s president and chief operating officer, noted that New Jersey colleges have their own work to do to provide housing and a campus life that appeals to the next generation of students. Also, had the program been around when Angie Feliz was in high school, she would have missed out, since she ranked second. One wonders how many other students ranked in the top two, or 10, or even 25 are leaving?

Once PSE&G convinced Feliz to take the internship, it didn’t let her get away. Instead of answering phones and getting coffee, she spent her time identifying equipment at substations that was scheduled for service. When she had questions, her co-workers were eager to help. And the company offered her a full-time job three months before she graduated. Now she works as a PSE&G engineer in South Plainfield, helping the company upgrade its transmission lines and making its system more reliable.

When Feliz first moved to New Jersey, she braced for the winter. A friend warned her: If she fell in the snow and ice, it was a sign that she was a true New Jerseyan. Sure enough, that winter she slipped and slid and fell all the time. Rationally speaking, she could have fallen anywhere. It snows in Manhattan and Boston and Denver, too.

But she fell in New Jersey.

“I love the people,” Feliz says. “I like how everyone is so dynamic. There’s so much to do. The seasons change. I love the weather. I like how we’re next to New York, but we’re not in New York. And my family is here. I would not like to be far from them.”