Finding Their Place

Discover how student organizations helped six students from across Stevens nurture a sense of community on Castle Point.

While classes and labs are an important focus, many Stevens students long for more: to connect with one another, to find a sense of belonging. Student organizations can help nurture this feeling of community.

Stevens offers about 150 student organizations that further the university’s goal of building a vibrant, supportive culture for all students.

“Our students are so talented and driven, and they go on to do incredible things professionally,” says Sara Klein, vice president for Student Affairs. “But success is also measured by their personal growth and engagement on campus. Student organizations facilitate a sense of belonging that enriches their lives, fulfills them with friendships and inspires them with empathy.”

Here, six students share how their student club experience has helped them find their place at Stevens.

Portrait of Lauren Espineli in front of a dynamic illustration

Lauren Espineli: A Passion for Culture and Friendship

Third-year student Lauren Espineli proudly calls herself “full Filipino” — her father was born in Manila in the Philippines and her mother is the daughter of immigrants from the country’s Bohol province. Growing up in predominantly white Toms River, New Jersey, she knew there was a larger Filipino community out there, and she wanted to be a part of it. “Looking back, I really didn’t know a lot,” Espineli says. “It was my yearning to learn more.”

As a freshman at Stevens, she was immediately drawn to the Filipino Association of Stevens Tech (FAST) during first term. With the club’s cultural events, big family-like celebrations and the warmth of its members, she found her place at Stevens. It felt like coming home.

“This club is very welcoming and open, more comforting. There’s a place for me. Getting to know other Filipinos, it makes FAST a family,” says the computer science major and aspiring data scientist.

The deep friendships she’s formed have made her college experience more meaningful, she says, and college life less stressful. Upperclassmen help younger students navigate classes and choices of professors, and alumni come back to share their experiences in the real world.

Then there’s another level of discovering — and sharing — her rich Filipino heritage. In addition to cultural events, FAST members offer lessons in Filipino arts and history. She learned Tinikling, a traditional dance performed with two sticks presented at one of Stevens’ Ethnic Student Council showcases. She has become more versed in P-Pop — Filipino pop music; has learned, with deep pride, about Chieftain Lapu Lapu, the Filipino leader and national hero who fought back Spanish conquistadors; and she’s discovered that she loves ginataan, sweet rice with coconut milk.

FAST — which has about 100 active members — welcomes all comers to its events, including Masskara, the Philippine “festival of smiles.” According to Espineli, tough economic conditions and a major ship collision lessened demand and harmed the sugar crop, so the people of Bacolod, Philippines, developed this colorful festival, with mask-making, dances and flowers, to lift spirits.

Espineli is now president of FAST and is enthusiastic about how she’s changed through her club connection.

“I feel more sure of myself, I’ve come out of my shell more,” she says. “I definitely feel more a sense of pride. I know about my culture now. It’s who I am.”

This club is very welcoming and open, more comforting. There’s a place for me. Getting to know other Filipinos, it makes FAST a family.
Lauren Espineli
Portrait of Polycarpe in front of dynamic illustration

Mickantzy Polycarpe: A Legacy of Building Belonging

As he considered colleges, second-year student Mickantzy Polycarpe immediately fell in love with the Stevens campus. But there was a moment of trepidation.

Coming from Carteret (NJ) High School, where most students are Black or Hispanic, he knew that the Stevens campus was less diverse than he was used to.

But he quickly found his home freshman year, when he met students from the Black Student Union (BSU). “A lot of people talk about a home away from home, and BSU is like that for me,” Polycarpe says.

“I have a sense of belonging. You’re able to joke around... there are moments when you’re able to relax, watch a movie, plan cultural events. If [BSU] weren’t here, I wouldn’t have the same comfortability on campus.”

Founded at Stevens in 1968, BSU continues its goals of empowering, teaching, discussing and exploring the Black experience. Much-loved BSU traditions that draw alumni back to campus include the annual Kwanzaa celebration.

BSU members meet often for membership meetings, movie nights, roller skating, with close ties to Stevens’ National Society of Black Engineers.

The best thing about BSU: “It’s an ‘everyone’ organization,” Polycarpe says. “But Black students will specifically benefit because it’s always nice to have a place on campus that is for you, that’s looking out for you.”

This business and technology major — with big goals of improving conditions in his mother’s native Haiti — says BSU has changed him. He’s more willing to talk with people he doesn’t know, more driven to forge new friendships.

“How often are you going to be able to create a friends group?” he says.

Portrait of Aya Zaatreh in front of a dynamic illustration

Aya Zaatreh: A Community of Strong Women

Aya Zaatreh ’24 was surprised when she arrived on the Stevens campus, after a freshman year spent online at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Entering her sophomore design class, she found herself among just a handful of women.

Zaatreh comes from a long line of strong women and has always been told that she could be anything she wanted to be.

But, “the sheer amount of men that were in the classroom made me intimidated to raise my hand and ask a question. And so, I didn’t.”

But around that time, she also attended her first in-person meeting of the Society of Women Engineers. There, she found her people, and her cause. “I knew that I should surround myself with women who are supportive and strong, and I wanted to be part of that. And I wanted to be part of fostering that community for everyone else on campus,” says Zaatreh, a biomedical engineering major from East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Today, Zaatreh is doing just that, as she serves as president of the SWE, which has a long history at Stevens and a legacy — its first national president was pioneering engineer Beatrice Hicks M.S. ’49.

Zaatreh speaks with great exuberance about the club’s flurry of activities: upperclass students mentoring new students, alumnae engineers returning to discuss their careers, meaningful community events like a fundraiser for a local women’s shelter and hot chocolate and movie night.

Zaatrah, who will attend graduate school at Columbia University, studying biomedical engineering with a concentration in machine learning and bioinformatics, has found not only friendship but also a great sense of fulfillment. Now, she never hesitates to ask questions.

“It helped me grow into myself in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I wasn’t involved, and a big part of that is being around these strong women,” Zaatreh says.

Portrait of Jan Slezka in front of a dynamic illustration

Jan Slezka: The Power of Music

For third-year student Jan Slezka, there was always the music: starting piano at age 6, picking up guitar when he was 9 or 10, numerous school bands.

By the time he landed at Stevens, the music and technology major from Evans Mills, New York, dreamed of writing and performing his own music, which leans toward jazz, rock and emo. But the COVID-19 pandemic made sharing any type of music in person impossible. Zoom didn’t cut it.

“Music, in itself, is meant to be communal,” Slezka says. “It’s best shared with others.”

Then, in spring 2021, campus slowly started opening up, and music led the way. The bands Gloss and Pom Pom Squad came to Stevens — the first in-person concert since the pandemic, sponsored by the Stevens Underground Music Awareness Committee (SUMAC).

Slezka ventured out for his first SUMAC concert and was hooked. He still lights up when remembering the night.

As for Gloss, “they were amazing. They did a real lively version of ‘Love Shack,’ and the crowd was like, ‘Hell, yes! Here we go!’

“That combination of artists really came together. I don’t remember a single dull moment in the crowd.”

Slezka now serves as president of SUMAC, which works hard to present little-known bands primarily from the New York/New Jersey area, most of them alternative, rock or indie.

SUMAC puts on two big shows a semester and usually draws more than 100 people to their performances inside the Howe Center’s Bissinger Room, where there’s music, food and the inevitable mosh pit.

Slezka has bonded with the 30 or so members who poll students and meet to decide on who they’ll seek for shows. Since he’s joined SUMAC, Slezka says he’s more outgoing, more open.

“‘Oh, dude, I love that band!’” he often exclaims to his fellow SUMACers. “It’s a great moment. We have similar-minded people here.”

Sharing music discoveries with other music lovers, collaborating with student groups like WCPR radio, Stevens’ Audio Engineering Club and SWIM (Stevens Women in Music, a prospective club), then bringing new music to the people fills him with joy. He can’t imagine doing anything else but music.

“Music can really reach to part of the person that nothing else can accomplish,” Slezka says. Being in a crowd and sharing the music, “it’s an irreplaceable thing, a feeling.”

Music, in itself, is meant to be communal. It’s best shared with others.
Jan Slezka
Portrait of Aspa Kokro in front of a dynamic illustration

Aspa Kokro: Finding Friendship and Family

Born and raised in the west African country of Côte d’Ivoire, Aspa Kokro M.Eng. ’20 has lived and studied abroad since his high school years in Senegal. After completing his undergraduate degree in Morocco, he came to Stevens in 2018 as a Fulbright Scholar for graduate study in ocean engineering.

“I thought that the best place to acquire knowledge — to be a global citizen and to be on top of that knowledge — will be in America,” he says.

As a graduate student, he lived off campus and struggled at first with the fast pace and with feelings of isolation.

But about a month later, in Stevens’ Ocean Engineering program, he met a student from Nigeria, one of a handful of African students on campus.

“That’s how the magic started,” he recalls. Jane-Frances Igbadumhe Ph.D.’22, along with his professors, helped him find an apartment, register for classes, even cook rice dishes. Together, he and Jane envisioned a group that not only connected students from African nations but also gave back to the community. With two other African students, they founded the African Student Association (ASA) in 2019.

“When you leave your country, you leave your people, so you need to find another family and, for me, Stevens is home away from home, and I got a new family.” He became ASA’s first president.

With ASA, he not only got help navigating life in the U.S., but also found lasting friendships. “Having friends — people you can talk to. It’s the most valuable thing you can have in life,” he says. ASA also aims to share African culture with the Stevens community, “to give an opportunity for the people at Stevens to travel to Africa while they are still on campus,” Kokro says.

He lights up when discussing ASA’s first “Taste of Africa” event. The showcase of the food, diversity, and culture of African nations held in 2019 drew about 100 people, and he felt included and valued— a feeling that continues today.

Kokro will complete his Ph.D. in December and hopes to work in an academic research laboratory. The Stevens motto “Per aspera ad astra,” so similar to his own name, inspires him.

“It means difficulties to the stars, right? So, I went through some difficulties, now, thanks to my education at Stevens, I will touch the stars,” Kokro says. “Stevens was created for me, for Aspa. This is my place. I love this school.”

Portrait of Sharma in front of a dynamic illustration

Shinjini Sharma: Connecting with Commuters

 Third-year student Shinjini Sharma faced challenges when she entered Stevens in the fall of 2022. She had just immigrated to the U.S. from India and was transferring from a university in the Netherlands. To save money, she was commuting to campus from her new home in Jersey City, New Jersey. And every day, right after classes, she just headed home. 

 “You go to classes, and you go home,” she says. “It sucks the soul out of you. I ended up feeling displaced.” 

 Then, at a Stevens clubs fair, she discovered the Commuter Student Union. The club members went out for ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s, and 30 people showed up, stretching across the store and spilling onto Washington Street. She felt a shift, and relief.  

“I really found my people,” she says. “Our main purpose is to build community. You sit, and you talk to someone.”  

The club schedules its events at times best for commuters and also offers group chats to share the secrets of parking in Hoboken, the best professors, commuter pet peeves. There are study sessions — always with coffee and cookies — and spike ball on Schaefer Lawn. Some 400–500 people participate in their commuter group chat, with enthusiastic turnouts for their events.  

This club has been transformational for Sharma. The math major has since joined Alpha Phi Omega, the service fraternity, and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. Her long days on campus — often from 10 am to 9 pm — are filled with activity, including leading the Commuter Student Union as its president.  

Sharma says she no longer feels like “just another face in the crowd.” 

– Beth Kissinger