Queensborough Community College, located in Bayside Queens won this year its first ever national award, thanks to Greek American Dr. Paris Svoronos, chairman of the Chemistry Department at Queensborough Community College. He was named Outstanding Community College Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) at a ceremony conducted at the National Press Club on November 13. He was one of four professors – and the only community college professor – selected for this national award.
An author of many scientific books and papers, Professor Svoronos did something extraordinary. Every semester he pickes the most talented young students, who attend Queensborough seeking to fill a health science requirement or to earn a GED and pushes those who dream of a career in medicine or engineering to achieve their goals. Most of those students are immigrant born. It was exactly his dream come true making ability that gained him the professor of the Year Award by the Carnegie Foundation.
“We offer them the opportunity in their lives to make it in the States and eventually make the American Dream realistic”, Professor Svoronos says.
He was born 53 years ago in Greece. His father’s family comes from Svoronata in Cephalonia and his mother’s family from Asia Minor. He received his B.S. degree in Chemistry and Physics in 1973, from the American University in Cairo and his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry in 1979, from Georgetown, where he was a research and teaching fellow from 1973-1980.
He has joined Queensborough College in 1981. In addition to Queensborough he is teaching at the same time as visiting Professor in Georgetown University and Nassau Community College.
“Unfortunately because of all this work I don’t have time to visit Greece as often as I wanted to”, he tells GreekNews.
Although Queensborough Community College has quite a large number of Greek American students, he has very few.
“Greek students are attracted from Business Studies”, he says.
One of them, Julia Christodoulou, (ex-American Ballet Dancer, graduated in September,- still taking courses at Qeensborough while doing research at Queens), along with 6 more of her colleagues had poster presentations at the 226th American Chemical Society National Meeting that was held this year at the Javits Center. Queensborough was the only community college participating. The students presented, discussed and defended their original results. The Queensborough student participants came from the United States, Iran, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Spain, Greece, and Sri Lanka.
“I am proud of our kids. I am proud also of our colleagues and in particular Dr. Sasan Karimi and Luis Vargas as well Chief CLT Pedro Irigoyen who served as mentors and/or co-mentors. We have demonstrated again that we are a community college but our kids are as good as anybody in the country”, he said.
A campus Chemistry Club and an Honors program Svoronos created in 1996 have cultivated student participation in experimental research and undergraduate symposia and national meetings sponsored by the American Chemical Society, for which he was chair of the Long Island Section. Svoronos has received special research funding from the CUNY system and has published both lab manuals and the results of undergraduate research his students have conducted. He typically advises as many as 70 students during an average semester and has been funded by the National Science Foundation for his peer-led tutoring program.
During the first 47 years of its existence, no community college student participated as a presenter in the prestigious American Chemical Society’s annual symposium. Four years ago, one of Svoronos’ students made the grade, a community college first. That number doubled the following year, and last year eight Queensborough (and three Queens students who were Queensborough graduates) participated. Earlier this year, fourteen Queensborough undergraduates presented their findings, the highest number of students from any participating college.
In an interview given to a local newspaper, “Bayside Times”, he explaines how he works with his students.
“I give them the opportunity to talk to me and tell me what they need and I try to help them,” said Svoronos, adding that the personal attention he gave his students was something they were not accustomed to from teachers in their home countries in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of his students are women whose traditional families do not expect them to have careers. In one case, Svoronos had to reschedule an evening experiment based on one girl’s 9 p.m. curfew.
Among the many awards on the walls of Svoronos’ office are photos of his students, many of whom have gone on to pursue science degrees at top New York universities such as Cooper Union and St. John’s.
“When I came to this country in 1973, I was given the chance by America to get my degree,” said Svoronos. “If I was given the chance, I should give the chance to students who are already here”, he told Bayside Times.
Speaking about the award, he modestly says, “This would not have happened if the students didn’t respond to the challenge presented to them.”
Although some U.S. Senators should participate in the ceremony at the National Press Club, a filibuster kept the at the Senate’s seats. But even later on, at the Congress, no congressman from New York took part in the festivities.
His students’ success is part of a team effort. “I, the entire department, and the College’s administration support the students in their research so that they can present it at symposia and eventually get it published,” he says. Graduates are often asked back to encourage new students “because they know what close attention did for them,” he continues. “The better of our second-year students tutor the freshmen.”
Dr. Robert Kahn, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Queensborough, has called Dr. Svoronos an “academic talent scout, one who finds talented scientists among students whose writing and language skills are crude, who only take Chemistry to fill a requirement, who don’t have a belief in themselves. So many of his best students began their academic careers with heavy remediation, never intending to pursue a career in the sciences. He is one of the shining stars on our campus and in the City University of New York.”
Some of the many talents scouted by Dr. Svoronos include Hong Kong native Berman Tsun, who was a business student in her final semester at Queensborough when she enrolled in a general chemistry course that changed her life; less than one year later she was one of only two community college students to receive the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a prestigious national honor based on academic achievement. Hoda Mirafzal came from Tehran, Iran in 2001 at 16, enrolled at Queensborough, served as the President of the Chemistry Club, presented at the American Chemical Society Long Island Section Chemistry Challenge at Hofstra University (where Queensborough teams placed first and third competing against four-year colleges), and two years later graduated with multiple honors at 18, while being awarded the Who’s Who Among Students in American Junior Colleges award. Jaime Lee Iolani Cohen entered Queensborough in 1993 while expecting her second child. With the continued encouragement of Dr. Svoronos, she switched from Nursing to Chemistry and ten years later is a second-year tenure-track Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry at Pace University, having acquired her Ph.D. in 2001.
“Our students test on average 10 to 15 percent higher than the national average at the American Chemical Society assessment test, and that includes four-year colleges,” says Dr. Svoronos.
Teaching the pre-med organic Chemistry courses for 28 years at Georgetown in the summer, he says proudly about his students at Queensborough:
“Our students are as good as Georgetown students, because I give them exactly the same type of exams that I give in Georgetown and I apply the same pressure.”