It’s a question that has nuclear engineers scratching their heads: How can one staff member’s passion for serving others make such a powerful difference?
Fortunately, colleagues have given up trying to figure out how Hermine Kabbendjian excels at everything from administering millions in grant funding to providing the encouragement needed to help students graduate.
Instead, half a dozen faculty and students clamored to nominate Kabbendjian for a University Award for Excellence. One of NC State’s top five winners, Kabbendjian went on to receive a Governor’s Award for Excellence on Nov. 29—the highest honor given to a state employee.
Kabbendjian combines professional skill with personal attention. In addition to meeting the needs of nuclear engineering faculty, graduate students and visiting scholars, a year ago she began serving as lead administrator for the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL) project. The U.S. Department of Energy hub is expected to bring $11 million in funding to NC State over five years.
Despite the new responsibilities, she’s known for fast turnaround times on projects large and small.
She listens intently and misses almost nothing, finding time to reach out to students who are struggling in school or adjusting to life in a foreign country.
“Some of the students are away from all they know for two to three years, and they miss home and the family,” Kabbendjian says. “You’ve got to create an environment where they feel absolutely welcome.”
International students often ask her to stand in for their families at commencement. They won’t attend the ceremony without making sure she’ll be there first.
‘Education Comes First’
Kabbendjian understands what it’s like to leave your home country, to start over more than once and to be in need. At home, she keeps one room unfurnished, just to remind herself. Neighborhood children love to come over and play in it.
Kabbendjian grew up in a family of educators in Beirut, Lebanon, and considers herself the “least educated” among them. She emigrated to California in the early 1980s to escape the war. While attending teacher training, she was introduced to her future husband, Dikran, who asked her to move to North Carolina.
Although she never pursued a teaching career, Kabbendjian has helped many students.
“I am very grateful for how she changed my life,” graduate student Crystian Merrill wrote in her nomination. “I would have given up on my master’s degree a year ago and with it would have gone some of my biggest dreams—and more importantly, my self-confidence.”
Merrill, who held a full-time job at Progress Energy, felt so overwhelmed after her first two semesters she was ready to leave school. She was trying to find a way to break the news to her family when she spoke with Kabbendjian, who had other ideas.
After “the best pep talk I’ve ever heard,” they discussed how Merrill could work out solutions with her professors.
“Education comes first,” Kabbendjian says firmly. “I tell our students, ‘Do not quit. We’ll find a way for you to be able.’”
“She loves to help people,” says nominator Hany Abdel-Khalik, who experienced Kabbendjian’s care as a graduate student before returning to the department a few years later as a faculty member. “I cannot think of anyone I interacted with in the last 10 years at NCSU who deserves this award better than she does.”