Paris stays with you

Published: December 19, 2019

An award-winning Queensborough Chemistry Professor goes to the wall for his students

When Paris Svoronos came from Greece to the United States in 1973 on a Ph.D. fellowship offer, his mother insisted that he wear a jacket and tie – he was flying to Washington DC, after all. The esteemed Queensborough Community College Chemistry Professor recalls it was a hot, uncomfortable, 11-hour, two-stop journey to the nation’s capital and his final destination, Georgetown University, “but God blessed me to be in this country.”

So, dutifully, he wore the suit.

The 69-year-old immigrant shares his coming-to-America story amidst an office wallpapered with students’ wedding pictures, newborn announcements, college graduation photos, thank you notes, postcards and artwork and among them all ‒ at least a half-dozen American flags taped to the wall, adhered to metal filing cabinets or draped over stacks of books.

A decoupage tribute to his students and their salute to him.

“I am happy for them and there is nothing better in my life than their success,” he says, shuffling stacks of paper on his cluttered office desk. He relocates a mug of few-days-old chemistry-experiment-coffee to behind his phone.

Students present Dr. Svoronos with a thank you card and a new lab coat at the end of the Fall 2019 semester

Picture: Students present Dr. Svoronos with a thank you card and a new lab coat at the end of the Fall 2019 semester.

Professor Svoronos is wearing a snug red pull over sweater and his fingers are entwined over his stomach. He leans back, thoughtfully, in his chair and laughs hard; his bushy eyebrows rise and fall as he squints, like an old-word Santa Claus (minus the beard and whiskers).

“America is a gift,” he states, a day after fall classes have ended and 12 days before Christmas, “A blessing. After all, in this country nobody cares where you come from. Everybody wants to see what you achieve”

To his left there is a graduation announcement from a new doctor, a former Bachelor of Arts student from Korea. There is a yellowing snapshot, with him in it, from the Pakistani medical student whose parents once had different plans for their daughter. Stuck to the door, a card from another doctor who escaped an abusive partner. Someone’s children have scrawled a note to Dr. Svoronos. Maybe he can teach them one day, they hope.

Three walls, scores of various former Chemistry students from Iran, Haiti, Korea, Jamaica, China, Bangladesh… Images of students from all over who went on to science, engineering or other careers are intermingled with photos of Dr. Svoronos’ own family: his wife, a fellow chemistry graduate from Georgetown; his daughter, the ICU neurologist; and son, a Harvard faculty member.

Most of his students came to America with little or nothing, except their dreams. They bonded to their chemistry professor and keep in close touch with him decades after they left Queensborough.

Dr. Svoronos’ calling to teach goes back six decades to his baby sister. “At two-and-a-half my parents said I would go to her cot and try to have her say ‘mommy and daddy,’” he recounts. In earnest, it started as a postgraduate student at Georgetown, as an organic chemistry instructor.

“The Georgetown chair at the time gave me a textbook on a Thursday night and said you start teaching on Monday. I had no syllabus. I had to write all of the labs myself,” said Dr. Svoronos, who lectured while a third year Ph.D. student. He continued to teach summer sessions at Georgetown for 27 additional years.

Sharp and edgy, Svoronos has fun with his students by balancing humor with knowledge. Interfere though, by being late or missing class, and you will get more than a jibe.

“You are responsible for your actions as well as your chain reactions. And forget about using cell phones in class.”

This month, Svoronos was named 2019 Professor of the Year by the American Chemical Society-NY section (two-year colleges), adding to a long list of awards, accolades and accomplishments that includes "Outstanding Community College Professor of the Year” bestowed by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) in 2003. He is American Chemical Society (ACS) fellow (the only community college fellow in 2018) and a recipient of the ACS Stanley Israel award for promoting diversity in the chemical sciences.

Surrounding Dr. Svoronos are cards, pictures and letters from past students.

Picture: Surrounding Dr. Svoronos are cards, pictures and letters from past students.

His former student – he calls her one of his favorite “adopted kids” – JaimeLee Iolani Rizzo, Ph.D., Associate Chair in the Department of Chemistry & Physical Sciences at Pace University, was equally awarded 2019 Professor of the Year by the American Chemical Society-NY section (four-year colleges).

“The adoration your students have for you is so precious, a clear testament to your devotion to them as not only an educator but as a mentor and role model,” Dr. Rizzo told Dr. Svoronos.

“I first met Dr. Rizzo in 1994 and now she is a full professor and deputy chair at Pace and a co-author of so many organic chemistry patents. Her success is what defines my job, and for this I am eternally grateful,” Dr. Svoronos gleamed.

Chair of Queensborough’s Chemistry Department from (2001-2010), Svoronos has written several lab manuals, research papers and reference texts. He is most proud, however, of undergraduate research he helped initiate at Queensborough in 2000. His first student, who was GED qualified and had never conducted research before, presented her findings at the American Chemical Society-NY section Undergraduate Research Symposium (ACS-NY,URS) that year. She was the first community college student ever to do that. This was achieved in conjunction with Dr. Sasan Karimi, current chair of Queensborough’s Chemistry Department, a national model of community college research due to the involvement of Faculty members who share the same goal.

This year Svoronos continued to supervise, with two students participating in Queensborough’s Undergraduate Research Day ‒ Showcasing Faculty-Mentored Undergraduate Research Across the Disciplines, as well as two high school students scheduled to present their findings at the Philadelphia National ACS meeting in April.

“Students who come to this country mistakenly think they have to be perfect and get everything right the first time. You cannot do that when you conduct research. You must make mistake after mistake after mistake. It is how you learn and figure out the error,” Svoronos explains.

“That’s the importance of research – critical thinking. I insist that students take their results and present at a conference because it is there that they will gain confidence, they will know their subject better, and it is excellent evidence to stick on a resume,” he adds.

And, eventually, to stick on his wall of fame.

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Contact:  Michael Donahue or Alice Doyle

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