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Stanford Report, May 14, 2003

Jill Nomura Fong: To her colleagues, she offers an understatement: 'I think I’m needed here'

Thirteen years ago, Jill Nomura Fong was spending too many evenings working overtime in a tech sector job when her mother spotted a newspaper ad for a position in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. Scientists who dedicate their careers to environmental research were likely to be considerate human beings, her mother reasoned. "They sound like nice people," she told her daughter.

Mom was right, said Nomura Fong, who happily has worked as an administrative associate in the Environmental and Water Studies Program since 1990. "It's a great environment. The faculty and students are wonderful and brilliant, but they are regular people. The working relationships are so easy, I'm spoiled."

The many students, staff and faculty who nominated Nomura Fong for the Amy Blue Award would counter that it is the other way around. Nomura Fong's cheerful enthusiasm and ability to solve problems are legendary, David Freyberg, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, wrote in a recommendation nominating her.

"Our lab would fall apart without her," wrote graduate student Jeremy Bicker. "She saved many an experiment from failure by knowing exactly how to get things done around the university and by having the energy to handle 20 tasks at once."

Among Nomura Fong's duties are providing administrative support for seven professors and 40 doctoral students; coordinating conferences and travel for the department and prospective students; and handling purchasing for items ranging from office supplies to highly specialized laboratory equipment. Nomura Fong also designed, constructed and maintains a dozen department web pages and produces department brochures and public documents. "Jill is a (if not the) major resource for administrative staff throughout the department," said Freyberg. "This is not just because she is approachable. It is because she knows her business inside and out, and she finds a way to help and educate people gently and without condescension."

"After six years of trips to Jill's office, I now have absolutely no doubt that whatever problem I bring to her will be solved," said grad student Matt Brennan, as he gratefully recalled the time Nomura Fong single-handedly arranged for critical equipment to be ferried out to a research vessel anchored in the San Francisco Bay, where he was conducting a time-sensitive study.

Nomura Fong grew up in San Jose and earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California-Davis. (She's a loyal alumna: "Stanford is great, but UC Davis ...") She thought she might become a technical writer, but disliked the routine overtime she encountered in the tech industry. "What's nice about working here is that you work hard during the day, but you can go home at 5 p.m. and cook dinner," she said.

Last May, Nomura Fong was married to Derek Fong, a lecturer in the department. The couple spends their evenings cooking together and often hikes on weekends, Nomura Fong said.

Over the years, Nomura Fong's outstanding performance has led her colleagues to suggest that she climb higher up the administrative ladder, wrote Jeffrey Koseff, professor of civil and environmental engineering and senior associate dean in the School of Engineering. She always demurs, citing her attachment to the community that surrounds her.

"I think I'm needed here," she said. "People come in here for help and I help them."