He worked on Capitol Hill, wrote New Jersey statutes and served as a Congressional aide.
But Professor Jonathan Wharton found his greatest passion in the Stevens classroom. The challenge: teaching history, political science and urban studies to a group of skeptical engineers. “What I love about teaching is learning,” Wharton says. “I’m always exchanging ideas and being challenged.”
So when his students didn’t want to attend Hoboken City Council meetings, he encouraged them to visit their hometown council meetings to see how local government works. After reading about gentrification and redevelopment, they went to Downtown Jersey City to see it. He brought Hoboken mayoral and council candidates to campus to speak—and answer students’ questions.
“His outlook challenges engineers to think more humanely and to look at engineering problems as a human should,” says one former student.
“All too often, engineers tend to take solace in their ability to explain trends, or reactions between chemicals. With Professor Wharton’s teaching, one learns to look past these explanations and to truly apply our hearts and minds to solve those problems which engineering can not even tackle.”
Again and again, students mention Wharton’s talent for making them think “outside the box,” his caring for his students, his willingness to serve as a mentor and adviser. For his many gifts, Wharton has been chosen by the Institute’s five most recent graduating classes to receive the Stevens Alumni Association Outstanding Teacher Award for 2010.
Dr. Wharton was honored at the Stevens Athletic Hall of Fame Brunch at Homecoming 2010 on Sept. 25 at Stevens—an event also attended by his father and a large group of his current and former students.
Dr. Wharton, of Jersey City, N.J., joined Stevens as an instructor in 2003 and became a full-time assistant professor in 2009. He has taught a variety of social science classes in the College of Arts & Letters, including political science, urban studies, the U.S. Presidency and the Legislative Process, African-American studies, Asian Studies and U.S. Constitutional Law. He founded the pre-law program at Stevens and helped to start Stevens’ Gender and Cultural Studies program.
And the list of student organizations to which he serves as an adviser is impressive: Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, the Sailing Team, the Torch Society and the College Republicans.
A visitor to his cozy third floor office in Pierce Hall is greeted warmly and immediately made to feel welcome, and you can imagine a student feeling quite comfortable. Photos of Wharton’s family and longtime friends hang on the wall, and a large bookcase—with most any social science book a student could ever need—fills an entire wall. There are comfortable chairs and a couch, both welcoming to a visiting student. So is the tin of chocolates and, when needed, a box of tissues.
Wharton is open and friendly, and his joy for his work is obvious. In his short time at Stevens, he has won two other awards: the 2006-07 Most Outstanding Advisor Award from the Office of Student Life, and the 2007-08 Most Distinguished Professor from the Student Government Association. But receiving the SAA teaching award still came as a surprise.
“I was just floored when I found out,” he says. “I’m very grateful.”
He truly brings real-life experience to his classes. Wharton worked both sides of the aisle, serving as a congressional aide for U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and former U.S. Reps. Glenn Poshard (D-IL) and Christopher Shays (R-CT). He was also a research analyst for the New Jersey State Legislature/Office of Legislative Services and did governmental relations and research work for the Black Caucus of State Legislators, the Eagleton Institute of Politics and other groups.
But working with young people has always been a passion, ever since he served as a camp counselor in high school.
He taught community college part time while working elsewhere—and always looked forward to his time in the classroom.
When he took the job at Stevens, everything clicked—and he knew that this is what he wanted to do. But it wasn’t easy.
Wharton struggled to engage the minds of young engineers. His first class—a freshman urban studies class—was particularly memorable.
“They put me through the ringer! he says with a hearty laugh. “I call them my ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ class.”
He finally did convince them of the importance of attending those city council meetings, and visits to see redevelopment in real life, namely Newport and WALDO in Downtown Jersey City, had an impact.
“Everything they read in the book and everything we talked about came to life,” he says.
Recently, he had dinner with that first class of freshman who gave him such a hard time. Wharton seems to inspire that kind of loyalty from his students.
Before he was hired as a full time professor at Stevens, Wharton, who earned master’s degrees from Howard University and Rutgers University, earned his Ph.D. in political science from Howard. For his dissertation defense, Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers whom he served as an adviser journeyed down to Washington, D.C., for the event.
Trying to reach engineers through social science classes is still a tough sell. But with Stevens’ green engineering minor, Wharton can stress the importance of being knowledgeable about zoning and planning laws, for example. Students get it.
“They have a big heart,” he says. “If they see potential in something, it just takes off.”
Wharton hopes to find more ways of bridging the social sciences and humanities with engineering and to offer more classes on urbanism and the rebirth of cities.
Wharton only later mentions the framed U.S. postage stamp on his bookshelf. Among the “Distinguished American Diplomats” on the stamp is his grandfather, Clifton Wharton, Sr., the first African-American to pass the Foreign Service Exam who later served as U.S. Ambassador to Norway. His smiling grandfather is also seen in a snapshot with a very young Jonathan, on the professor’s wall.
His father, Dr. Richard Wharton, a former Spanish teacher and adult education administrator for the state of Connecticut—and his son’s mentor—was there to cheer him on, when his son received his latest teaching honor at Stevens.