Professor to receive presidential recognition for STEM mentoring

By Aaliyah M. E. Murillo, March 8, 2022

Cal Poly Pomona’s Winny Dong, a professor in the Chemical & Materials Engineering Department, has been awarded, among  12 others, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring announced in February.

Dong is the founder and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Achieve Scholars Program, the co-founder and faculty director for the Learn Through Discovery Initiative and the director for the McNair Scholars Program.

Dong was nominated for the honor by former Dean of the College of Engineering Cordelia Ontiveros.

Winny Dong speaks at the 2022 Student RSCA Conference at the University Quad. (Nicolas Hernandez | The Poly Post)

“I am definitely excited and honored,” said Dong, also mentioning that the award could not have been possible without, “a combination of myself being mentored and the amazing students I worked with.”

President Joe Biden selected 12 individuals on Feb. 9 for the award. Though four recipients are from California, Dong is the only recipient representing Los Angeles County.

Biden underscored the award saying, “The work that teachers and mentors do ensures that our nation’s children are able to unlock —for themselves and for all of us — a world of possibilities.”

Dong expects to continue establishing quality mentorships through the various programs they have developed over their career.

“Our students are amazing,” Dong said. “They make the work so much fun.”

As Dong prepares to receive the nation’s highest honor for mathematics and science mentorship, they recalled the inspiration of their father, who emigrated from Taiwan.

In an interview with KVCR, a noncommercial public radio station, Dong discussed how their father studied physics in the United States for his doctorate and became a professor in engineering at Cal State Long Beach.

“That is what lead me into being a teacher, a professor at Cal States teaching engineering,” said Dong.

Dong has committed their time to helping CPP students since 2000. They have been named Provost Teacher-Scholar on three occasions and received the Provost Award for Excellence in Research in 2015.

Former student David Kok (’14, chemistry) wrote a reference letter for Dong’s nomination. Kok wrote in his letter, “Prof. Dong didn’t simply dismiss me due to my substandard GPA. (They) saw the protentional I had and took me under her guidance.”

Kok transferred to CPP from community college and had finished their military services a few years before meeting Dong. Kok was a first-generation and low-income student at the time.

“After my first year of research with Prof. Dong, (they) highly encouraged me to apply to the McNair Scholars Program,” continued Kok. “I had compounding personal issues … dealing with veteran issues, family obligations and financial constraints made it seem like I had to study twice as hard to achieve the grades of other students.”

Dong understood the struggles of their mentees and never enforced an agenda that each mentee must attend a higher education program.

“What attracted me (to mentoring) was the relationship you develop with students,” said Dong. “They come back … and tell me all the wonderful things they have received and how well (my) students are doing.”

Dong has helped countless students extend their education after their undergraduate programs were completed at CPP. Dong has mentored nearly 200 students — directly — but through the various programs Dong have established at CPP, it is now over a thousand students who have been mentored — directly or indirectly — through their help.

Aside from mentoring students, Dong had partnered with NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center with a semester-long program where the business and engineering colleges at CPP worked together to create protentional technical and commercial inventions for the program.

Dong has also helped with the campus partnership with University of North Dakota which helped undergrads pursue graduate degrees in business, biology, chemistry and chemical engineering.

Despite their many achievements and their national recognition, Dong remains humble as they have been from the beginning of their career.

Laughing, Dong said, “(I am) definitely the same person,” adding they could not have achieved this much if it were not for their students who they mentored.

Several students have reached out to Dong in extending their congratulations and recounting the importance of Dong’s mentorship.

Due to the current state of the global pandemic, Dong has yet to receive a date on when they will be presented with the award by President Biden.

“I have not thought about what I wanted to say to Joe Biden,” added Dong.

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