The Humans of PASE Project

May 2, 2022


Journalism students interviewed staff members and their peers about their life experiences and photographed their subjects. Students aimed to remain as true to their subject’s voice as possible so few edits were made.

I hope you enjoy the stories 🙂

Mr. Lenihan



Questions asked in the interview:

  • What are the events in your life that you consider the most important? 
  • What is the biggest challenge you believe you faced? 
  • How did you overcome the challenge? 
  • What motivated you to overcome the challenge?

The Story:

“Changing careers when I was 58 years old. Moving from Verizon and then trying to become a teacher, a high school teacher. At Verizon, I started out doing statistical analysis. Then I moved on to doing data analysis. For the last 10 years, I did survey analysis. I decided that when it became time to leave Verizon and change careers, I would become a teacher. To become a teacher, first I had to pass a state test to show that I know enough math to become a math teacher. Then take a 2-year program. 10 classes, you do projects, you do homework like a student. At the end of the 2 years, we had to do this thing called the edTPA. We had to take a 150-page document and do a reflection. Answer 150 pages of questions on reflections related to our teaching. And then do a video of ourselves teaching. Overall, pass the 2 years of classes and get a passing score on the edTPA. I left Verizon and I was teaching here. So it’s just a lot of late nights, a lot of work on weekends, you know, very little free time to work on projects. This took a lot of time, but now, I teach Algebra at a high school.” 

Changing careers takes a lot of motivation. Mr. Lenihan talked about where he got his motivation from.

“When I was working for Verizon I would go to Community College to teach at night. That was my part-time job. I loved it. I thought teaching was the greatest thing in the whole world. The motivation was…I really wanted to not only become a teacher, I wanted to be a really good teacher. On top of that, I’ve been a lucky person, I’ve got a lot of support from my family.”

Ms. Yildiz



 “Right after I graduated from college when I was 24 years old, from Turkey, we were our own country…I really didn’t have any other friends from other ethnicities. We were all Turkish. Same color, same language, no differences at all. Even then, having some different mindsets in Turkey, it came up kind of like, not racist but…personally from my family I have never seen any discrimination towards other people. There’s some people in the eastern part of Turkey that they always claim that they haven’t been discriminated. I don’t know the whole story of that but that’s what I hear. So when I came to America, after I saw people are living with so many different like religions, and so many different colors and ethnicities, it changed my mind about people. Also in Turkey, almost everyone that I knew, they were all Muslim. One religion, and you think that that’s the only religion that exists, but then I came here it’s just all different religions and people can live in harmony, which is actually amazing. From Turkey to America, the main difference, at this point, at this age, now after living here for 16 years, I’m looking at the person, people or a person, just the way they are. Without judging their religion, or any ethnicity or anything. For me now, it’s just whether the person is nice or not. I don’t even care where they are coming from or what they’re doing.”

Andrea Alcala



“Why are we moving? Did I do something wrong? Are we coming back? I don’t want to go!”

I was told by another that I was moving to the U.S.

I couldn’t believe my parents would make such a big decision. I was not expecting to go to a new country with literally nothing.  I was already settling in Colombia. Family members, friends, and my loved ones were the first thing that came to mind. I was not ready to go to America and start a new life there. Especially going to a different community where different traditions and languages are practiced.

My Mom had said “Your father and I had made this decision because we want the best for your future. Not only yours but your siblings and ours.”

My mom had no idea what I was feeling at the moment. I didn’t know what she meant by having a better future when I saw a future in Colombia. I  was born and raised with much love for my Colombian community. Arriving in the United States was very unlike Colombia. The food tasted different, I had no idea what people were saying and the vibe of the environment was off. I didn’t want to go to school, I was very self concerned about not knowing the language. I struggled to understand the materials in school. Communicating with my teacher was probably one of the hardest things I went through. I felt like giving up and going back to my country. I never felt like I’d fit in with other people and I over-thought every little thing. My grades weren’t the best and I lacked motivation. I had no idea what I was doing, felt lost and depressed.

My mom would always sit me down and say “Everything will be okay. I will never do something to you that you won’t get over.”

My mom was one of my biggest supporters. She’d always be there for me. Throughout my first year of high school I met one of my best friends and surprisingly we were on the same boat. She’d also come from Colombia a couple months before I did and she was also struggling to speak the language. We both were in each other’s comfort zones. We stuck together throughout high school and now we are seniors taking a regular English classes. I feel great about myself and adapting to a new community with different aspects. I would love to go to Colombia but only to visit. I now thank my mom so much for giving me this opportunity to study in the U.S. It was not part of my plans but going through something difficult always has a good outcome.

Alpaslan Özdoğan: Becoming A Teacher



I finished my master’s in Mathematics Education in New York.  I am currently A graduate student at Seton Hall University.

I came from a “teacher” family. My dad was a retired principal. My uncle is a principal and both of my brothers were teachers. Although one of my brothers’ majored in engineering, he decided to switch his career to teaching. So, teaching was a passion in the family. I admired my dad and my family members. I think that is one of the reasons why I decided to become a teacher. Math is also one of the stronger subjects in my family. So, this motivated me to pursue my college career in Math.

PASE is my first public school experience. I used to work in a charter school. A friend of mine who had worked in Prep Academy mentioned this school and I wanted to experience a larger public school environment. I applied and I ended up teaching at PASE. This is my second year teaching here.

A struggle that came with becoming a teacher was the environment. I used to work in an inner-city school setting. My first two years of teaching were challenging for a couple of reasons: I worked in a school where poverty, socio-economic, and discipline issues were a major concern. 

How did I overcome those challenges?

I took the time to get the know my students and families. I knew that working in such an environment would not be easy, but I loved what I was doing. I was and still am passionate about teaching. I was not teaching just for the sake of the paycheck itself. Making a positive impact on a young mind was more important than that. Once students got to know my caring personality along with my sense of humor, they became more comfortable and demonstrated a better performance in my classes. They knew that we were on the same side and assisting each other.  I worked with the same student groups for 2 years and during this period, we built a great relationship.

My experience with PASE? It has been great so far!


Stephen Caufield



My name is Stephen Caufield. The biggest struggle I’ve faced thus far has been trying to find the work/ life balance and after finding it, maintaining that lifestyle. Also, when trying to balance these things you have to remember to stay in the moment and enjoy it. Things I have had to balance are time with my family, finances, and plans for the future. Another struggle has been trying to get your own definition of what success means to you. And you might take another person’s definition of success to make it yours as well, but the reality is that in order to transcend obstacles one must define success for themselves.

Professionally the biggest struggle has been trying to get students to understand that they are unique and incredible individuals with limitless potential. This has been a struggle. As a teacher, one would want to see their students succeed as students and individuals, but some difficulties can arise from this being accomplished. Some being that they think they are defined by situations and groups when they aren’t. 

Ms. Landress



When I was interviewed for math to teach at PASE when the school (Lincoln Middle School) was divided, Ms. Ross asked if I could teach Econ because I was a bond trader and I immediately declined; though a couple of hours later I changed my mind and decided to teach it because I wanted to teach students and teach them life lessons.

Like most high school students, I also didn’t know what I wanted to be after high school and it was stressful having to make a big decision like that. And you never know if that passion for a job is what you want to do, or discovering a bigger passion for a different profession other than the first choice that you made after high school.

What inspired me to become more involved in politics was when I asked what a bond trader was and Stanford firms flew me out to the Palace Hotel in New York to understand what was it like to be a bond trader. And once I got to the Palace, I knew that this place was the place that I want to be at. I mean every room had antiques. I worked hard in high school and I got into Stanford University and Vassar college as an undergraduate and people found me. After I worked for two years in politics then I went to graduate school. I was a part of many political campaigns and you have to have a lot of responsibility when you’re very young in politics.

I think from trading, I learned how to fail. You are 51 percent right and if you fail once, you get comfortable failing; you’re comfortable with everything. Also, do not let failure get to you. If you learn how to fail you’re a lot happier.

I first became a BTS fan at the beginning of the pandemic. I didn’t have anything to do until my students introduced me to K-Pop and drama. BTS, they’re happy. It’s not about their music providing content but they’re the nicest guys you’ll ever meet in life. They’re entertaining to watch because they’re unbelievably nice, and the way they are very protective of one another. Korea looks at music differently. They create a relationship with the fans.

Steven Mena



My name is Steven Mena. I was born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey. I grew up in Jersey City, a town a little similar to Passaic, where there are a lot of apartments and a very close tight-knit neighborhood. I lived across the street from a schoolyard, so I was able to play with my twin brother and neighbors a lot of the time.

My biggest struggle growing up was becoming comfortable with being around people that spoke a different language since my first language was Spanish. I was able to learn English by taking ESL classes. Since I was young, it was easier for me to learn a new language. I had a twin brother with whom I only spoke in English to get better at it. One thing I knew is that learning English would be important for me in any career I chose to be in. I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to be a counselor, it’s just something that happened. My brother and I grew up with an understanding that we had to go to school to be successful because we saw how hard our parents worked.

In high school, I discovered that I like to help people. I was on the track team for three years, when I realized I liked to help my teammates. When I went to college, I studied Criminal Justice and noticed that law wasn’t really for me, but I still wanted to help people. After I graduated from college I took a year off and then decided that I would help people by counseling them. It was a whole journey and not something that I realized in one day.

I didn’t really have dreams in high school, only motivation to succeed that came from watching my parents work hard. Both of my parents came from Colombia and worked in cleaning services at a young age, my mom also worked as a school bus driver for a long time. I had to discover myself and stay on the right path. Helping people was just what I liked to do growing up and now it’s a career that I enjoy. 


Geraldine Javier



A really big issue I had was in 2019. We were looking for a house, my daughter was turning one, and my mom went through an accident. She had an aneurysm in her brain. So because of that everything has been transformed in my life where she’s no longer the matriarch in my family. Now she’s the child whom we have to take care of her. It was really big because she was the one who we all depended on and the one who we would all run to for help, she was always there for family.

It was something very serious. When we found out that she had fallen unconscious and was in the hospital going through two surgeries that were life and death…You never know what’s going to happen so it was one of the moments where it really put your life into perspective and makes you value family, makes you value what you have here. It makes you value what you dedicate your time to, and it shows what to appreciate however minor it may be.

That was a very challenging time because I’m trying to close a deal on a house, trying to get settled here at PASE because it was my first year here, trying to get settled in a new town, and trying to make my daughter comfortable in a new home. There were a lot of changes in one summer before the school year so I was very stressed out and like it was one of the hardest days in my life.

Now, thank God, everything is alright because the doctors managed to clip the aneurysm and clean up the bleeding in the brain but because of this she has short-term memory loss. Since that day, she requires a 24-hour home care attendant and someone in the family is always present to keep watch on her.
It was life-changing experience. The one person we all depended on needs our assistance even for the basic things. It was challenging for me because first, I lost a person to talk to, to confide in. I lost that relationship. I can’t have the same conversations because she would lose track easily. It was challenging for everyone in the family. I found it most difficult because I’m living here in Passaic and my entire family is in NYC. So the distance did not make it easy. I always need to be in contact with her to make sure everything is okay but also to manage her everyday essentials like her medical check-ups, food supply, bills, etc, since she can’t do that anymore. And I know it’s hard for her too because she never depended on others.
It’s very challenging to have to balance work and life, childcare, relationships, and grad school all at the same time. But that was my mom and I would do anything for her. That experience changed my life completely and I know for her, she would say the same. I learned so much from that experience. I appreciate what I have because I don’t know when it will be taken away.

Ms. Kucharyk



In Humans of PASE, we interviewed staff and teachers and ask them one question that requires a lot of thinking. Today, I interviewed my ninth-grade English teacher. I asked her “What was the biggest struggle in her life so far?” and the answer to this question is something that we all may experience someday.

“Hi, my name is Ms. Kucharyk. I think the biggest struggle was transitioning from a high school that was very small and only going to school with 103 kids that I have known since I was in kindergarten and most of us have stayed as a group through 12th grade and then I went to college and not knowing one person. So I was nervous and anxious and I did not know how I was going to make it through because I never had to make new friends or get to know new people, so transitioning and getting to know new people was a struggle.

I was shy at first and it took me a long time to open up. In the beginning of college, I didn’t know if I was gonna go back or finish because during the first week of school I struggled really bad…I was like so upset because going from someone that had friends with them in their classes and knowing all the teachers, to going to a large campus and not even knowing all the friends or all the teachers in your class and it was just a lot.

I went to Kean. Now it’s a small school and when you compare it to some of the other colleges like Rutgers, but coming from a high school that was very tiny, this was still like to me, a very large environment. In my first year, I made some friends, and then I tried to make my schedule and I would at least have some classes with some of those people and like the good thing about that college is that the students that were in your classes were freshman year some of them actually did follow you in some of the other classes. And then, sophomore year you can pick more classes by yourself because you are not just a freshman anymore so I was able to pick and choose my classes with professors that I knew more compared to freshman year.

You could also join clubs and activities with your friends. On the weekends and after school, I would still talk to and even see my old friends. And I noticed too that they struggled as well so it was nice to see that I wasn’t the only person and it happens to a lot of people.

I think the first year was when we all struggled as a whole and I think if we went to a larger school with a more diverse student population, it wouldn’t have been as difficult. I still talk to my high school friends and I sometimes talk to my college friends. I don’t have many because I did not live on campus, but if I did live on campus I would’ve been a lot closer to them but I drove there but I have about 3 close friends.”

Mr. Fitzgibbons



“I am teaching here at Passaic NJ, this is my 4th year in Passaic and 8th year teaching. Living in NJ. I’m from Pennsylvania. Went to college out of Notre Dame in Indiana. I majored in Political Science in Arabic studies. In my junior year of college, I spent a semester abroad in Cairo, Egypt. I was on an ROTC scholarship meaning a couple of days a week I was going military stuff, that way when I graduated from college I was commissioned as an officer in the U.S Navy.

After college, I was in the military for four years and I was an officer stationed in Bahrain then I was stationed in Texas, then went to Japan for a year and a half which was kind of cool. But I spent too much time stationed out at sea which was very difficult and I knew at the time, a couple of years into it, that I was going to get out.

One of the reasons is that life being on a ship is very difficult and also, I was uneasy with what the military was doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s been a challenge to be in the Navy, and when you come back from sea you kind of learn to be back on land, which can be dehumanizing. You know your captain can start to yell at you, and I was used to not disappointing anyone which is something I wasn’t good at. It took me a while to figure it out and accept that part. With the Navy, I’m glad I did it because it opened my mind a lot. Although I wasn’t in those places I still struggled with it, which is why during my lessons in class and I hear students talking about wanting to join the military I try to keep them more informed about what they can get themselves into not because I don’t want them to join but because recruiters don’t really tell the whole story. I’m glad I did the military, I just don’t think I can do it all over again, it’s just too difficult. 

After all of that, I went to the University of Toronto. I wanted to get my Ph.D. and become a professor but that whole process is too much because it has its own politics. At this point in my life, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do in my life. I was 26-27 which is fine because you might want to change your profession and that is ok. I went back out to work at Notre Dame and I was in charge of a residence hall for three years. Then I decided I wanted to become a teacher. I was working on a program at St. Joseph’s University to work on my master’s in teaching. My wife and I decided to move to NJ after my wife, who is a public defender, took a partnership with a judge in Newark, NJ. We have been here ever since with my beautiful 3-year-old daughter and my wife and I are expecting our second baby, a boy, in June.”

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