Prospective engineering student reveals his decision to family and nation on NBC, then breakdances

What do you wear when you are going to share one of the biggest decisions of your life on national television?

A suit? A tie? No – not if you plan to breakdance after publicly announcing your college plans.

After thinking about how to look on his Today Show debut Monday morning, Ethan Thai, a senior at Old Bridge High School in Matawan, went for a bright red Scarlet Knights T-shirt and matching shorts, all hidden under a black, zip-up jacket and black breakaway pants with side stripes.

The plan, during the show’s “Celebrating College Decision Day” segment, was to speak about his high school experiences with NBC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff and then make his reveal about his college choice – the Rutgers School of Engineering. Under his outfit he wore a Rutgers T-shirt for the moment he shared the news with his mother, May, his father, Ted, and his sister, Emi – who were standing nearby during the filming – as well as to the legions of Today Show fans watching from home.

The 18-year-old sped up the sequence, but it all worked out.

“It was surreal,” said Thai, reached later in the day when he was back at school and excused from his Chinese language class to speak. “Here I was, standing on the plaza in front of Rockefeller Center, with this huge, cheering crowd, and Jacob [Soboroff] was asking me about high school. But my mind went to the thought: ‘It’s crazy – I’m going to college!’ So, I just said, ‘I’m going to the Rutgers engineering program. I got accepted into the school and I’m really excited.’”

Then the honors student got a surprise from the Today Show – and Rutgers.

“All of a sudden, the Rutgers marching band came from around a corner,” said Thai. “I thought I was going to reveal my shirt and that would be it. I was like, ‘What the heck is happening?’”

Some 30 members of the Rutgers University Marching Scarlet Knights, which will be back in New York City for an appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this fall, marched onto the plaza, and performed the university’s fighting song, “The Bells Must Ring.” They were there to celebrate “our university pride and Ethan’s decision to attend Rutgers,” said Todd Nichols, the director of University Bands at Rutgers, who also was present and in uniform.

“The band was housed across the street from the studio while we waited for the segment,” said Nichols of the group, which left Rutgers’ Busch campus in Piscataway at 4:30 a.m. to arrive on time and practice. “As it got closer, the band went down and around the block to hide out of sight from Ethan to then make our grand entrance and reveal the surprise. It was a nice moment.”

With his family beaming and his announcement complete, Thai knew it was time to celebrate. Off came his black jacket, revealing his Rutgers shirt, and the once-professional dancer who has performed with the singer Mariah Carey and the New York Knicks was flying with intricate footwork, exhibiting a hip-hop move known as a “top rock” and a “kip-up,” a kind of flip. The long pants came off next, revealing Thai’s scarlet Rutgers shorts, and he stood with Soboroff as the crowd cheered.

Today Show producers said the segment – scheduled to coincide with National College Decision Day, when high school seniors confirm their enrollment with the school of their choice – was a first for the popular, longstanding broadcast. Owing to the success of yesterday’s show, featuring Ethan and seniors from New York and North Carolina, show producers may repeat the segment in the future, show officials said.

The students were chosen for their outstanding records, including academic achievement and service, Today Show host Craig Melvin explained on the air as he introduced them.

Thai said he became very interested in mechanical engineering during a visit to the Rutgers School of Engineering a few months ago and was intrigued about the idea of packaging engineering, a field he had never heard of. A bus tour of the Rutgers campuses in New Brunswick and Piscataway last week solidified his decision to attend.

“I love the campuses and I love the community that’s at Rutgers,” Thai said. Thai’s parents said last night they were still processing the day's events, which started with a pre-dawn ride in a chauffeured SUV to the New York City TV station but were filled with pride and joy. “

A lot of friends and family have reached out to congratulate us and we're still kind of shocked,” Ted Thai said. May Thai said she was happy her son had reached such an important decision. “It was just an amazing experience for him and we’re really proud of him for all his achievements,” she said.