When Joe Majeski was struggling at Princeton High School, no one who knew him would have predicted that ten years later, he would be a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester.
“High school was just not in any way interesting to me,” he said. “I was skipping classes, getting bad grades and getting into trouble.”
Joe’s mother, Mary Dolan, an art teacher herself, said she was “completely baffled. He’s a bright kid, but his head was somewhere else.”
“Joe was always more interested in working with his hands than with academics,” Mary said. “He’s always been curious, and he spent a lot of time with his dad in the garage, fixing things and working with tools.
“So when things got really bad towards the end of his sophomore year at PHS, one of his guidance counselors suggested a shared-time program at Mercer County Technical Schools (MCTS),” she said. “I hoped this would help Joe at least get through high school.”
It did. Once Joe joined the MCTS’ shared time electrical construction program in grade 11, he became very engaged.
“It just sparked my curiosity,” Joe said. “I found something I really liked, and I wanted to learn more about it.”
Joe’s admiration for his teacher, Sam Bell, was a big part of his motivation, Mary said. “Mr. Bell was really tuned into his students. He didn’t take any garbage from the kids, treated them like adults, and held them to very high expectations. Joe really had to think and work hard in those classes, and he did.
“It confirmed what I thought from the start: Joe was bright enough, he just wasn’t interested in the academics that high school – any high conventional school, not just PHS – had to offer him,” Mary said. “He had to find his own way.
“The Mercer County Technical Schools’ shared-time program is all experiential labs. If you’re curious about something, you take that interest into a class and do something about it,” she said.
After graduation, Joe got a job in electrical construction. He wasn’t thinking about college at first, but he found the entry-level work constraining as his curiosity was expanding.
He enrolled in the Pennsylvania College of Technology and then, at his mother’s urging, transferred to Manhattan College in the Bronx.
“In Joe’s first interview at Manhattan, the engineering dean said, ‘You know how to work with your hands as an electrical engineer. Our other students just know what’s in the books.’ And then they offered him a partial scholarship!”
After graduation, Joe worked for an engineering firm in White Plains, but again found that he was growing more curious about other engineering fields. He enrolled in a masters’ degree program at Manhattan.
This fall, at age 25, Joe started the Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering at the University of Rochester.
Mary knows many parents “are put off by the thought of a vo-tech school as an option for their child. They think it’s the end of the child’s academic life. But in reality, for many of these bright kids who aren’t traditional students, it’s just the start.
“Joe found something really engaging that made his last two years of high school bearable. He learned how to look around at various options. Then he learned how to satisfy his growing curiosity about related fields through – yes! – academics,” she said.
“It’s what NJ county vocational-technical schools do: Help a kid find his passion. Give him the tools and information to achieve his goals, and he’ll figure out how to do what he has to do to get what he needs,” Mary said.
Mary often speaks about Joe’s experience to the parents of prospective students at MCTS open houses.
Joe comes sometimes, too, when it does not conflict with his academic schedule.