Provided/From left, Stockton Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff Terricita Sass; Alex Kaganzev; Stockton President Joe Bertolino and Dan Nugent, vice president for University Advancement and executive director of the University Foundation. Kaganzev donated $25,000 to the Foundation to fund the Seeta Voorakkara Communications Disorders Memorial Scholarship.

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP – As a young professional, Alex Kaganzev still remembers the awful feeling he would have during work meetings.

“The first thing you do is you go around the room and introduce yourself, and I remember the dread I would feel because I could not say my last name,” said the 1990 Stockton University graduate, who has been a lifelong stutterer. “The closer it got to me, the more nervous I became. It was almost unbearable.”

For years, Kaganzev struggled with his stutter, and as a child he was very shy and quiet.

“For a lot of severe stutterers, it’s easier for us to be mute, or not talk, rather than to stutter. Everything that we do in life is predicated on the ability that we are able to communicate with people,” said the Vineland native who now lives in Mays Landing.

But a chance encounter with a state speech pathologist named Seeta Voorakkara would change his life.

Alex Kaganzev with Victoria DiCicco, one of the scholarship’s recipients.

Kaganzev also worked for the state at several developmental centers when Voorakkara approached him. She wanted to help him with his stutter. Voorakkara worked for New Jersey for over 30 years after emigrating to the United States from India and was known for selflessly helping others.

“I didn’t know who she was. I can’t even remember first meeting her,” he said. “But she welcomed me into her house every Saturday morning and provided me with free speech therapy. We became friends, and I got to know her two kids.”

Kaganzev was so moved that he wanted to do something to remember her, so in 2020 he established the Seeta Voorakkara Communications Disorders Memorial Scholarship with the Stockton University Foundation, which provided a $1,000 scholarship to one Stockton student each year.

“I always wanted to do something special for her,” he said. “I was just amazed how this woman did what she did. I can’t even imagine anyone today doing that.”

On April 10, he expanded the donation to $25,000, which will provide two $1,000 scholarships to students pursuing a degree in Communication Disorders and a career in speech pathology. Kaganzev also reconnected with Voorakkara’s son, Sid, who also contributed to the scholarship.

“The scholarship is providing his son an opportunity to get to meet his grandmother. How kind she was, how generous she was, how special a person she was,” Kaganzev said.

Stockton President Joe Bertolino thanked Kaganzev for the donation and assured him the scholarship will continue to honor Voorakkara and her family.

“I have to say it’s pretty stunning to me how you met and how this person just brought you into their home and brought you into their lives,” Bertolino said. “Sometimes we forget how one act, or one individual, can set into motion a series of events that can change multiple lives.”

Victoria DiCicco is one of those lives. After graduating from Stockton in 2022 with her bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences with a concentration in Communication Disorders, the Williamstown native wanted to get her master’s and become a speech therapist. But she was concerned about her finances last summer.

“I can remember exactly when I got the email saying that I was awarded the scholarship,” she said. “I realized that I was going to come up short, and the email was literally for the exact amount that I was worried about. It was an answer to prayer.”

DiCicco will graduate this spring with a master’s degree in Communication Disorders. She entered the program convinced she only wanted to work with children, but one of the externships she had at an adult rehab center expanded her interests.

“Also, after seeing my grandfather’s battle with Parkinson’s and him passing away this year, he struggled a lot with speech toward the end. That gave me a new perspective,” she said.

DiCicco is one of 27 students in her master’s cohort, said Amy Hadley, associate professor of Communication Disorders. Stockton is now admitting its 14th cohort of students and more than 300 have graduated from the program and gone on to become practicing speech language pathologists, many in southern New Jersey, Hadley said.

“I couldn’t think of a better recipient of this scholarship,” Hadley said. “She’s been a wonderful student, both academically and clinically. There remains a shortage of speech language professionals. We get calls weekly asking if we have any students graduating that we can send out to clinics and hospitals in the area.”

Kaganzev said he’s just so pleased that his donation can help students like DiCicco.

“To me, the limelight belongs with Victoria and people like her because she’s entering a field that is so important to people out there like me,” he said. “Her career will help dozens of people. I commend her for what she’s doing and what she’s about to pursue.”

Nanette LoBiondo Galloway

Award winning journalist covering news, events and people of Atlantic County for more than 20 years.