Editor’s Note: Despite the necessary adjustment to virtual instruction for part of this semester, more than 6,000 talented Fresno State students will earn their degrees in May and move on to become the next generation of leaders in the Central Valley and beyond. While every hardworking graduate deserves to be recognized, for the rest of the semester we will be sharing the inspiring stories of graduates like this one who have achieved at the highest levels or have overcome remarkable challenges. As University President Joseph I. Castro previously announced, the University looks forward to celebrating all of its deserving graduates at an in-person ceremony at a later date when it is deemed safe to do so.

Not many students turn down a chance to attend an Ivy League university, but mechanical engineering graduate Bailey Gong was confident Fresno State was the right fit.

The Smittcamp Family Honors College student chose to complete his undergraduate studies at Fresno State after being offered an opportunity to transfer to Cornell University his sophomore year. Now, after earning his bachelor’s degree, things have come full circle as Gong will start a graduate program in food science at Cornell University this fall.

Between maintaining a 3.97 GPA and juggling internships and his spot on the Bulldogs’ men’s tennis team, the Exeter native somehow makes time for another passion — food.

Growing up watching Alton Brown on Food Network’s “Good Eats” program, Gong’s enthusiasm toward food started at a young age.

“He’s a cook and food scientist, but he would explain the chemistry of why his recipes would work with emulsions, starches and gels,” Gong said. “I thought this was so cool. My dad and I loved watching all the cooking channels as I grew up, and that was my favorite.”

When Gong arrived at Fresno State as a freshman, he was naturally drawn toward the Food Science and Nutrition Department.

He loved the courses and worked in the campus creamery to get hands-on processing experience. He also assisted department chair Dr. Steven Pao in research that studied safety methods related to foodborne pathogens in packinghouse equipment and produce.

However, as Gong’s first year progressed, he considered a career working with food processing machinery that would integrate food science and mathematics. After talking with an adviser, Gong switched his major to mechanical engineering, and has met the degree’s 132-unit requirement in three years.

This spring, he was nominated for the Lyles College of Engineering Undergraduate Dean’s Medal while earning a minor in food science and nutrition.

Gong credits his ability to succeed academically from his Smittcamp Family Honors College support group that included special advising and scheduling that helped him take 19 to 26 credits per semester. Older students in the same major lent advice and support to keep him on the rigorous academic pace.

Before he started his sophomore year, Gong declined an invitation to transfer to Cornell, which had initially placed him on a wait list as a high school senior. “I liked it so much at Fresno State and wanted to play on the tennis team,” Gong said. “I knew it would be hard to start over, and this was the right place for me because there were so many special opportunities.”

The choice paid off. Gong will receive full tuition and a research stipend for his graduate studies, which helped him choose Cornell over offers from University of California, Davis, Michigan State University and Ohio State University. He will work on research related to microwave vacuum drying, a quicker and more effective way to process dried products.

The technology, known as MIVAC, was actually developed by former Fresno State professor Dr. Carter Clary, who now teaches and conducts research at Washington State University. The technology was later funded by Kellogg’s and is now used in cereals that feature dried, puffed fruit.

Gong had a chance to get familiar with the Cornell campus last summer through a research internship where he worked with Dr. Carmen Moraru, the department chairperson who will also serve as his faculty research mentor.

His path to the Ithaca, New York institution included an internship at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Although he did not know much about his assigned research area, corrosion science, he quickly caught up.

“I read almost a whole textbook on the topic,” Gong said, “and then relied on my mentor to learn about the experiment procedures. By the second half, I had figured out enough to learn that you don’t necessarily have to be a complete master on a topic. It’s more about you doing your homework and being well read to help give you a blueprint to start the problem-solving process. It was a great growing experience, knowing you can pick up new and different skills and still be productive.”

Even with his full schedule, Gong made time to serve as a literacy mentor for third-grade students at Susan B. Anthony Elementary School through the Every Neighborhood Partnership, a non-profit organization that connects Fresno churches to elementary schools. “I’m the youngest in my family, so I never really had any mentor role for other kids,” Gong said. “This was a special chance to give back.”

Gong’s schedule has finally slowed somewhat the past month due to the COVID-19 community restrictions, and it has brought him closer to his family who also work in the food industry.

While taking classes virtually, he works at R&N Market in Exeter to help his aunt and uncle, Chris and Wade Wong, who manage the store and are short-staffed. His mother, Violet, works at the store as a controller supervising accounting operations. His father, Doug, is a procurement manager overseeing buying and inventory for Food 4 Less.

The extra time at home has helped him to continue to develop cooking skills that he has learned from his parents and were passed down from his grandparents, Raymond and Mary Chun and Joe and Cora Gong, who immigrated from Guangzhou, China to the Central Valley in the 1940s.

“Since I’ve lived in the dorms, there wasn’t much of a chance to cook, so I’ve been able to try a lot of new recipes out at home,” Gong said. “I’ve gotten to take advantage of a lot of great food made by my grandmother, Mary, and other family members. The other day I made some char siu bao, which are traditional steam barbeque pork buns, so I’m going through a bread and dough phase.”

Even though Gong will soon move 2,800 miles away for graduate school, his family knows his heart may lead him back home.

“There are so many food processing companies here in the Central Valley,” Gong said. “It would be great to work as an engineer and create ways to optimize and innovate new methods. It would also be a special way to combine my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and in a place I love.”

(Story by Erica Bowles, student assistant for communications in the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology)