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Spotlight on alumni

In the final spotlight on the 2011 Alumni Tribute Award winners, we feature Rhonda Zygocki. Ms. Zygocki is the 2011 recipient of the Alumna of the Year Award. Currently the executive vice-president of policy and planning with Chevron Corporation, Ms. Zygocki holds one of the most senior executive positions with their global operations. Talking with our Gazette contributor David Penney, she reflects on her career and the role that Memorial has played in her success.

DP: Can you tell me about your experience at Memorial? What was it like to be a student at that time?
RZ: It was in the mid-seventies that Memorial actually began graduating engineering students from the school, before that you would have to go away. The building was brand new, and we were just starting the co-op program, which was a huge attraction. And we became a great group of friends. Our graduating class had only about 60 of us, so you were getting a great education in a new program with a very small class.

DP: You started with Chevron as a young graduate in central Alberta. Back then, do you think you could have foreseen where you are now?
RZ: When I graduated it was a time in the industry when many companies from Calgary were recruiting people, but I had little knowledge of the industry or the company. The business has taken me to multiple countries, where I've met incredible people and experienced cultures from around the world. There was no way to predict my future and that's a good thing. The last 30 years have been a real adventure for me.

DP: You've led so many business functions and projects that could be considered outside of what most people perceive as engineering. Can you talk about that?
RZ: The first 15 years of my career with Chevron were tied more toward engineering driven jobs. After that I basically raised my hand because I realized the worldwide enterprise offered so many interesting opportunities. After 14 years in Alberta I was then transferred five times in 10 years. My first job outside of an engineering related function was when I was asked to be the CFO of Chevron Canada. I think that assignment solidified my reputation as someone who could step outside of engineering and do different things, even in higher responsibility roles.

DP: In terms of your current role with the company, corporate responsibility is a primary focus. Can you describe for me what you do and the larger impact of that role?
RZ: My current role as executive vice-president of policy and planning oversees the global functions of health, environment and safety, public and government affairs, which brings in all aspects of corporate responsibility, among other things, and strategic planning. More and more business, particularly the energy business, is at the intersection of public policy issues, community issues and of course safety and environmental issues. Bringing these together under one executive vice-president allows my leadership team to work together to make sure there's always an alignment where we're looking at long-range business strategy through the lens of public policy, community and social issues, health and safety regulations and legislation.

DP: I know that the recruitment and development of students is important to your business but also important to you on a personal level. Can you tell me about that?
RZ: Well, for the last couple of years I've had a special relationship with a student from Berkeley here in California, and mentored her through her college years. What that relationship did was bring me back to my own university days, and really gave me pause to reflect on how important support is for students. Unfortunately, it's difficult to have a personal relationship with Memorial being so far away, but it's one that's important to me, so I decided to start a scholarship, specifically for women, in Memorial's engineering faculty.

DP: How does it feel to be receiving the Alumna of the Year Award?
RZ: Naturally I'm honoured to receive this award. I've always been very proud, that I can say anywhere around the world, that I come from Memorial, and from Newfoundland and Labrador. There are extraordinary people who have received this award in the past, and I'm thrilled to be a part of that. I was asked just recently what I thought was my greatest accomplishment. I quickly said that it was my engineering degree, because that was the single thing that has opened the door to what has been an extraordinary experience.