It never hurts to ask.
It was hard not to pick up on this part of Dr. John Zondlos personality when he joined West Virginia Universitys chemical engineering faculty in 1982.
He quickly showed his energy, enthusiasm and just plain approachability, making him a mark among students as a professor they could simply talk tobe it in the classroom, the lab or the hallway.
WVU is honoring Zondlo this month with its annual Neil S. Bucklew Award for Social Justice. Its one of the highest outreach awards the University can bestow, and the professor is being recognized for the approachability that has turned into a tireless advocacy of African American and women students in the College of Engineering.
Zondlo will receive his award in a 7 p.m. ceremony on Friday, April 15, as part of WVU s Weekend of Honors observances in the Mountainlair Ballrooms.
The award is an honor, he said, and its also little bit of a surprise.
Thats because, as Zondlo recalled recently from his office bulging with books and papers in the Engineering Sciences Building, he didnt exactly set out to become an advocate.
What happened was this: Two students simply asked for his help. And he couldnt say no.
Twenty-three years ago, WVU s student chapter of the Society for Women Engineers was all but inactive, and the WVU chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers had yet to be formed.
Organizations like the above offer the chance to attend prestigious national conferences, which make for invaluable networking opportunities.
When the two different students asked for his help with their respective groups, the professor didnt think twice. Zondlo zeroed in with the same focus and drive he employs in his current research to recast the carbon of coal into new, energy efficient sources of fuel and other products.
Thats because for him, WVU s most viable energy source is its students.
There was no way I was going to turn them down,Zondlo said of the requests.This is a major where you dont see a lot of black or female faces. I was flattered when they asked. I guess they thought I was approachable and that I was somebody they could trust.
Under Zondlos direction, both small groups at WVU over the years have made a big presence at national gatherings in Boston and other major cities.
Thats an invaluable experience,he said,and I get real satisfaction out of watching them grow and develop.
He also gets a kick out of watching youngsters actually get excited about science, engineering and other technical pursuits.
For the past five years, WVU s Society for Women Engineers chapter has
coordinatedEngineering Our Lives Day,a project where Girl Scout groups across Morgantown and the region convene on campus to earn formerly elusive math and science merit badges with the help of chapter members who oversee their learning projects.
Engineering Our Lives Dayled toEighth-Grade Engineering Day,a program that takes the outreach to county schools and works the same way, with WVU students coordinating projects and experiments that are just as fun as they are educational.
Thats the thing,Zondlo said.Young people have a real sense of wonder. The idea is to grab onto that. If you go to these events, youll see kids laughing and having funbut theyre also learning pretty serious science and math concepts at the same time.
At 57, Zondlo hasnt lost his sense of wonder. Married with two grown daughters, he lives on a 26-acre farm next door to Morgantown in Preston County, where he raises horses and occasionally dabbles in amateur radio.
I get to hone my engineering skills by maintaining my farm equipment,he said, chuckling.When I was a little kid (in Bethlehem, Pa.) I used to tear everything apart and put it back together again: TVs, radios, enginesTheres too much life going on to get bored. Im a very lucky person, and I owe to our students. They keep me going. Theyre why Im here.
That became very obvious to his colleague, Dr. Dady Dadyburjor, when he took over as department chair five years ago.
Zondlo then was really getting into his research in carbon and coal technology, and was also teaching a full load of classeson top of advising the two student groups.
Dadyburjor gently suggested that he turn those groups over to another faculty member to ease his workload. Zondlo, just as gently and politely, said thanksbut no thanks.
His words were, more or less, that he had put in too much of his own time and effort into these organizations to let them slide down now,Dadyburjor said.The reason is he genuinely enjoys what he does.