A Professor, an Alumnus and a Student Walk Into a Committee Meeting...

A close student-faculty relationship catalyzed the journey of one now-alumnus into the industry he hoped to join after graduation.

By: Meghan Kita  Friday, February 9, 2018 02:00 PM

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Carlos Herrera Acevedo ’17 works at his desk at Direct Energy in Woodbridge, New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Direct Energy.

Bill Zoha ’79 P’18, who’s now the owner of Prescient Energy Corporation in New York City, was a German major at Muhlenberg. How did a language student end up as a player in the energy industry? One professor played an instrumental role—specifically, Christopher Joyner of the political science department.

Zoha took a class with Joyner, who had an interest in deep-seabed mining. “At that time, Germany was a leader in this area,” Zoha says. “He knew I was a German major and connected those dots for me.”

Joyner suggested Zoha do independent research to learn about that marketplace through the lens of Germany, and one of the resources Joyner shared was from a large, German industrial trading conglomerate. Zoha's experience emboldened him to pursue a career with that company after graduation: “I reached out to their New York City office and said, ‘I know everything there is to know about deep-seabed mining and I speak fluent German and I think you ought to give me a job,’” he says.

That got him an interview during an economic downturn, and he ended up with an entry-level position in commodity trading. “A professor built a bridge for me between a language and an industry,” he says. “It was up to me to walk across that bridge.”

Zoha’s story parallels that of Carlos Herrera Acevedo ’17, a math and physics major who is now a pricing analyst for Direct Energy in Woodbridge, New Jersey. In Herrera Acevedo’s case, Rich Niesenbaum, biology professor and director of the sustainability studies program and the RJ Fellows honor program, was the bridge-builder.

Niesenbaum calls Herrera Acevedo a “leader among leaders” who stepped up to organize the pre-orientation program for new RJ Fellows. When Niesenbaum learned of Herrera Acevedo’s interest in sustainable energy, he recommended he serve as a student representative to the President's Committee on Campus Sustainability. President Williams had invited Zoha to the committee, and at the first meeting, Niesenbaum made the connection.

The two chatted about Herrera Acevedo’s coursework and internships—he’d spent a semester with the office of campus sustainability and, thanks in part to networking help from former Muhlenberg vice president of external affairs and community relations Mike Bruckner, the previous summer at PPL Electric Utilities—and exchanged contact information. Herrera Acevedo passed along his resume, which he’d worked with the Career Center to polish, and asked for job-hunting advice.

“After Bill saw my resume, he told me, ‘I think you would be a great candidate for any energy position,’” Herrera Acevedo says. “With him being in the industry, he had seen plenty of resumes before. For him to tell me that I would be in a great position to be hired by an energy company gave me a lot of confidence.”

Zoha recommended that Herrera Acevedo look at Direct Energy, an energy trading and marketing company, because they’re well-established and nearby and they supply electricity and natural gas to Muhlenberg. It helped that Herrera Acevedo was able to find an alumnus there, Al Lussier ’85, who, after a resume-review and a phone call, connected Herrera Acevedo with the hiring manager for the position he ultimately got.

“This wasn’t just a coincidence,” Zoha says. “It was everyone going above and beyond to help one of our students land in an industry that he had a great interest in accessing but needed some help from someone who’s been in the industry for many years, like me.”