Among the 1,085 Johns Hopkins University under-graduates who will receive degrees on Thursday, there are some who will hold diplomas that have come to mean more than simply the conclusion of four challenging academic years. Their diplomas symbolize their resolve to reach this one particular day, no matter how grueling the path leading to it.
These are the stories of four of those quiet stars of the class of 1999.
Nick Nistazos, East Baltimore
The cashiers of the graveyard shift at the Dunkin' Donuts on Dundalk Avenue in East Baltimore are used to watching their boss work behind the counter, do some accounting, draw up employee schedules, fix whatever stove or sink is acting up that night and then, just as the morning birds start their singing, settle into his office and crack open a volume on the collected works of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nick Nistazos, who grew up in Baltimore's Greektown, has been in the doughnut business since he was 14. That was when his father, who had been a Dunkin' Donuts baker for 25 years, bought a store with a friend. Neither Nick's father or mother could read or write English; they had left Greece with a middle-school education. So Nick, now 23, and his older brother, George, would translate for their father when he dealt with the employees, lawyers and accountants. But their father decided to get out of the business and sold the store in 1992. Borrowing from his profits from the sale, Nick, then 16, and George, then 19, bought their own Dunkin' Donuts store, becoming the youngest franchise owners in Dunkin' Donuts history.
When they weren't fighting or wrestling each other to the store's floor (which they don't do anymore), they were a creative, driven team. Within one year, they did what hadn't been done locally before: They had set up accounts for Dunkin' Donuts kiosks--with institutions like Johns Hopkins and Union Memorial hospitals and in Royal Farm stores in Baltimore. Sales went through the roof, up from $400,000 to $1.5 million. Feeling like they were on top of a gold mine, they bought a factory to churn out doughnuts 24 hours a day and were on their way to setting up kiosks in Royal Farm stores throughout the state. But they learned--too late--that Dunkin' Donuts would prohibit any more kiosks in Royal Farm stores. The factory had to be shut down, and the brothers lost $75,000. It would take two years to recoup their losses.
"That was a low point in my life," says Nistazos, who was then 18. "I was sleeping on flour bags in the factory; we were losing $10,000 a week. Shutting down that factory was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. I couldn't bring myself to do it. My father had to come in and help me."
That spring he was accepted to Johns Hopkins. The summer before he entered, he set up a Dunkin' Donuts kiosk in the campus cafeteria; its profits would neatly pay for his tuition.
Managing a full-time schedule at Hopkins while running a business was tricky. "I pretty much flunked the first semester," he says ruefully. "I felt so stupid, not just because I didn't do well but because I was the one who had written that $11,000 check to be there."
But after that semester, he learned how to juggle--and the next semester he and his brother would buy a second store. This month he will graduate with a 3.25 GPA, majoring in political science with a minor in ancient law and history. He and his brother are in the process of buying two more stores. Next fall, he plans to go to law school and earn an MBA at the same time. He's been accepted in several prestigious graduate schools but is still undecided about where he will go. After that, he says, who knows? He may decide to pursue the doughnut business--or sell his share to his brother and do something completely different.
Robert Johnson, Charles Village, Baltimore
One of the most desperate moments of Robert Johnson's young life took place during his junior year in high school. The electricity in his apartment had been turned off, and he was searching for enough dimes and nickels to buy a pizza to feed his 7-year-old brother, but he couldn't find the money. With his mother addicted to drugs and rarely around, Robert had been left to dealing with the cut-off notices and taking care of his little brother.
But throughout this time, high school was good to him. Caring teachers at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute encouraged and challenged him, and in his senior year, he was accepted to Johns Hopkins with a scholarship. The summer before he was to leave for college, his family was evicted from its Park Heights apartment. His grandparents took custody of his little brother, and except for her occasional stays at his grandmother's house, his mother has never lived in any one place since.
Freshman year was awful. He was distracted by the upheaval at home; especially worried about his little brother, who hated his new school; and suddenly surrounded by aunts and uncles, who had many of the same problems as his mother.
"I was shell-shocked when I first entered Hopkins. I had never been in an environment like that. Before Hopkins, I don't think I even knew any white people," says 22-year-old Johnson, who is black. "I worked very hard to make sure no one had a clue about what I was going through."
His grades were terrible. Though he had attended a high school math and engineering academy, he realized he didn't like engineering. Overwhelmed with his personal and academic problems, he began to withdraw into his dorm room. By sophomore year he was on academic probation and was required to meet with Adriene Breckenridge in Academic Advising.
In her office, for the first time he finally started to talk. It would be a pivotal moment. He felt a release by unburdening himself. He started going to therapy on campus, and he worked with counselors in Academic Advising to find a major he would like. He began to take some economics courses, and his grades went up a little bit. But the courses didn't excite him, and he still wasn't getting the grades he wanted. Then, in his junior year, his grandfather, who had been a father to him, died. He requested a leave of absence.
Few people on campus who knew Robert Johnson expected he would come back to Hopkins. He doubted it himself. He worked as a telemarketer, and tried to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. That summer, Benedict Dorsey, who is associate director of Student Financial Services and also serves as pastor of New Light Church, a small nondenominational church in West Baltimore, kept in touch. Johnson began to get involved in a church for the first time.
In the fall of 1998, he walked into Academic Advising and announced that he wanted to create his own major. He crafted a program that combined political science and sociology courses and, for the first time, took classes that set him on fire. He soon was making the dean's list consistently and was catching the notice of his professors.
Though he continues to worry about his little brother, who is now 12, Johnson says that life is finally beginning to feel good. He is a junior deacon at New Light Church. Last August he got married. This month he will be the first member of his family to graduate from college. During the summer he will hold a prestigious internship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. And next fall he will enter Georgetown Law School with a $21,000 scholarship to study international law.
"I think that during that semester off I found out why I had come to Hopkins in the first place," Johnson says. "I realized I needed to prove that I could finish something I started. And when I looked around, I saw that the alternative to college wasn't that promising. In the end, I grew to love this place very much."
Rajeev Goel, Saratoga, California
There are a lot of college students who deal with long commutes to work. But one student has most likely set some sort of a Johns Hopkins record with his weekly commute from Baltimore to Silicon Valley.
Rajeev Goel, 21, is co-owner of chipshot.com, an Internet company based in Silicon Valley. With 17,000 visitors to its Web site every day, chipshot.com is the country's largest online retailer of custom-built golf equipment. Last year, venture capitalist Sequoia Capital infused the company with $3 million so that it can expand into other customized sporting goods.
The company was started in 1995, when Rajeev was a freshman at Hopkins, by his brother Amar, then a sophomore on the golf team at Harvard. A year later, Rajeev joined the company. At first, the two ran a healthy business selling brand-name golf equipment online. But soon other online sports equipment companies began to squeeze the market. So the brothers decided to build their own golf clubs.
With company profits, the Goel brothers set up a factory and began to make customized golf clubs. Today, if you visit the chipshot.com Web site you can type in your weight, height, wrist-to-floor measurement, handicap and a host of other preferences in order to have the perfect golf club designed especially for you.
Though backing by a venture capital company is every start-up owner's dream, the decision to begin expanding the company came at an awkward time for Rajeev. He still had a semester left at Hopkins.
So he created a schedule where he would take five classes on Mondays and Tuesdays and then, on Tuesday night, take the red-eye to California, returning to Baltimore on Sunday.
"Technically I only needed to get one class out of the way to graduate as an economics major," he says. "I thought about transferring to Stanford or UC-Berkeley, but I wanted to feel like I experienced some part of my senior year. And I had pretty much set out a long time ago to graduate with more than one major, and I wanted to see it through."
Luckily, he wasn't bothered by jet lag and was able to get most of his papers written in flight. The economics/political science/Spanish major will graduate from Hopkins with a 3.74 GPA.
Jason Altman, Westbury, New York
When Jason Altman arrived on the Homewood campus as a freshman, he made a lot of friends, had a campus job and joined every campus group that interested him. What most people didn't know was that his mother was dying of cancer. His father had left the family when Jason was young, and he had spent the last year caring for his mother and little brother with some help from his grandmother. That first semester at Johns Hopkins was an escape from having to watch his mother's pain. She died in late autumn.
After that, there was no money. Altman had received a good financial aid package, but it didn't cover everything. He had to walk into the Financial Aid Office and tell them he didn't even have enough money for the registration fee.
"I didn't see how it could possibly work out; I was basically going in to say goodbye," Altman says. "But [director of financial aid] Ellen Frishberg told me, I was part of the Hopkins community now and not to worry about it. And they just worked it out."
What he didn't know at the time was that his mother had traveled to Frishberg's office in August to tell her that she was no longer in remission and that she was worried about what would happen to Jason after she died.
"I made a promise to her that we would take care of him," Frishberg says.
His conversation with Frishberg stuck with Altman, not just because he no longer had to worry about money but because she had used the word "community," and it made him feel less alone. He was now a ward of the state and was feeling adrift. It was suddenly harder to make real friends, and he no longer felt an attachment toward his studies in the sciences.
"I had always thought I wanted to be a doctor," he says. "But after my mother died, I knew I couldn't work in a hospital. I hated [hospitals]; they reminded me of too many things."
So he began to explore the humanities and realized that he wanted to write film scripts. He became a media studies major and was energized by his classes. After awhile, life began to get better. He still had a campus job, and he participated in campus activities that were meaningful to him, like the improv comedy troupe, the Hillel chapter and the campus peer counseling program.
Last summer he spent an internship reading scripts at Miramax Films in New York. The people there liked him, and his boss urged him to stay in New York, give up college and work full time. Altman knew he would be giving up an opportunity, but he had one year left at Hopkins, and he wanted to finish it.
"I feel like I went through a lot to be here and that I owe it to everyone who helped me stay here," he says. "It's important to me personally to graduate."
Miramax held the job open. After Altman graduates on Thursday, he will move to New York City and work there.