Courier News: RVCC at 50: Alumni focus on the 'community' in community college
Published 9:00 a.m. ET Oct. 8, 2018
Editor's note: The Branchburg-based Raritan Valley Community College is marking its 50th anniversary this year. An ongoing monthly series of stories will highlight different aspects of the college and its role in the life of the Central Jersey community.
While serving his country in the fall of 1966, Daniel Puntillo decided to attend Raritan Valley Community College — then known as Somerset County College (SCC), in Branchburg.
Puntillo, a 1965 graduate of Bridgewater-Raritan High School, was serving in the United States Marine Corps in Vietnam.
“After having been in a firefight with the Viet Cong, I realized our enemy was just like me…and there was a better way to co-exist with those who appeared to be different from us. I immediately contacted my parents and told them I needed to get back to school in order to prepare for a better future,” he recalled.
Puntillo, who received a Purple Heart for his military service, began preparing for a “better
future” in 1970 when he enrolled at SCC. He quickly became active in student life, serving as president of the Student Government and helping out around campus including mowing the lawn, cooking in the cafeteria, and working in the evening division assisting students and adjunct faculty members.
His community spirit caught the attention of a group of ministers working with a runaway and other young people.
“They had asked if I could help them find volunteers to work with these young people, so I volunteered and this was the start of Middle Earth and my career,” the Somerville resident said. Puntillo served as executive director of Middle Earth from 1974 to 2012. Based in Bridgewater, the non-profit organization provides individuals, primarily youth, with prevention, intervention and crisis services to help them develop into responsible and productive members of the community.
Puntillo, who transferred to Rutgers University in 1972, first began volunteering in the community as a teenager. But he believes his experience at the college was “the catalyst to bring community involvement to a new level. It put me in touch with the larger community I was living in.” Since then, he’s been extremely involved with numerous community organizations, holding leadership roles and receiving numerous accolades and awards. He also received an honorary degree from RVCC in 2002.
Attending the college, adds Puntillo, was “one of the many influences in my life that helped me become who I am.”
'Make a difference in the world'
RVCC alumna Della Wallace has been employed by the DiFrancesco Bateman Law Firm for 15 years. In addition to working as a paralegal, the Flemington resident is the founder of Prom Kings and Queens, a company that provides prom wear to students free of charge.
“I can hardly remember a day when someone at the college did not tell you to think outside the box, to give back when you can, to make a difference in the world. I simply followed the advice I was given,” said the mother of four, who received an associate's degree in paralegal studies from RVCC in 2003.
Since the company was launched in 2009, Prom Kings and Queens has donated approximately 2,500 prom gowns and 700 tuxedos to students. The company has locations in Flemington and Phillipsburg.
“I was inspired to start Prom Kings and Queens out of necessity,” Wallace explained. “My son was attending his prom and it was very expensive. We spent $250 to rent a tux for one night. I decided to find a better way to help my family and other families.”
Wallace returned to school as an adult after deciding she need to do more with her life. She said she was always interested in law and felt becoming a paralegal would be a good fit. “I took the leap of faith and promised my husband that I would graduate with no less than a 3.5 GPA with his support," he said. "He gave me his support and I kept my promise.”
Wallace calls her RVCC education “second to none.” The RVCC tradition, in fact, has continued in her family. Her son Ryan, who is pursuing his law degree at Capital University in Ohio, also graduated from the college.
'Passing on what I learned'
Serving the community also was a large part of the RVCC experience for Nemanja "Nik" Nikitovic. The Serbian native immigrated to the U.S. in August 2001, a week before his first semester at the college. He began taking English as a Second Language classes at RVCC and in 2005 earned degrees in engineering and mathematics.
Along the way Nikitovic became a founding member of RVCC’s Rotaract Club and served as the group’s second president from 2003-2004. The service-based club offers students the opportunity to assist those in need and learn about civic engagement, leadership and responsible citizenship.
Now an assistant professor of Mathematics at RVCC, the Flemington resident continues with his Rotaract involvement as club advisor.
“RVCC made me who I am and I am simply returning the favor and passing on what I learned,” said Nikitovic, who’s been teaching at RVCC full-time since 2010. Rotaract’s more than 80 members donate 1,200-plus hours of community service each year, often working over holidays and college breaks. Volunteering efforts have included campus gardening, cleaning up roads in Readington, and packing more than 160,000 meals sent to children in Africa. Club members also work closely with Rotary Clubs in Central Jersey and have participated in missions to Nepal and Colombia.
For Nikitovic, who received a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics from Montclair University and a master's degree in applied mathematics from New Jersey Institute of Technology, joining Rotaract and later Rotary (the parent community organization) “are some of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. They give purpose in life and an opportunity for growth at every step of the way.”
“When I came to the U.S., If I had ended up being a student anywhere but RVCC, I would have missed out on this life-changing opportunity,” Nikitovic said. “This is why I consider RVCC my second home...I found purpose at RVCC.”
For more information on RVCC's 50th anniversary celebrations, visit raritanval50.org. For more information on the college and its programs, visit www.raritanval.edu.