Friendly. Witty. Kind. Vibrant. Joyful. Generous. A dynamo. Inspiring. Brilliant. A wonderful professor, and a wonderful soul.
These are just some of the admiring words that friends, colleagues, former students, and others have used when remembering Sophia Hassiotis, who passed away on June 13, 2021, after a 22-year career as a highly respected and much-loved professor of civil engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Since joining Stevens in 1999 as an associate professor, Hassiotis had served on department and university committees, been elected several times to the faculty senate, and served on the Board of Trustees’ committees on alumni and development and facilities as well as on faculty committees. She had spent nearly two decades helping prepare and complete the civil engineering program’s self-study reports for ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). Most recently, she had served as the associate chair for undergraduate studies of the department of civil, environmental and ocean engineering.
In 2013, when she was honored as the first woman ever to receive the Stevens Alumni Association’s Outstanding Teacher Award, she reflected on her role. “My job as a teacher is to make them fall in love with the subject,” she said. “I love the subject and I want them to see the beauty in it. I want them to be as ready as they can be for the future.”
Perhaps no one at Stevens knew her better than her office neighbor, Dibyendu Sarkar, professor of environmental engineering and friend of many years.
“I joined Stevens in 2016, and although it’s not a huge department, it took us two or three months to connect,” Sarkar recalled. “One day, I was coming out of the library, and she stopped me and asked how she knew me, and we realized that we were departmental colleagues. I thought, ‘This lady is pretty quirky.’ But that was the kind of person she was, so outgoing, and every time you met with her it was like a warm hug, a big smile and big laughs. The next year, I got my office on the third floor of the Rocco Technology Center, right across from her office. We bonded a lot more, and she became my best buddy in the department.”
They both kept schedules that left them as the only two people in Rocco until 9 o’clock many nights, and that’s when Sarkar learned more about Hassiotis, both professionally and personally.
“Sophia was a very good structural engineer who studied and assessed damages to structures, particularly steel structures like bridges, buildings and airplanes,” Sarkar said. “Most recently, she was talking to me about the project she and Dimitri Donskoy were working on through a grant from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, to detect and analyze damage precursors in steel structures.”
He described her teaching style as “old school.”
“She was a tough grader and pretty tough on the students, but she won over everyone with her personality,” Sarkar said. “I've seen her spend a lot of time with students.”
He also admired her contributions to building the civil engineering program and supporting the broader interests of the university — even recruiting him into service.
“Sophia is the reason I ran for a faculty senate seat, which led to my becoming its current chair,” he explained. “I wouldn't have even thought about doing it, but she dropped by and said there was an opening, and she thought the senate would need someone strategic like me. I was in my second year at Stevens, and I was hesitant because I felt like I was still new, and I was busy creating and directing the sustainability master's program department and establishing a lab from scratch. But Sophia convinced me. She was very active, and always did what needed to be done. She was everywhere, fighting for making the university more diverse, bringing in more female faculty members and more LGBTQ people on campus.”
Hassiotis was just as passionate about everything she loved in her own life.
“Sophia was a real coffee snob,” Sarkar noted with a laugh. “She used to get these beans from somewhere, and she had a cool espresso machine that she was very proud of. And we would have espresso, and every couple of weeks she’d change the beans and ask me which one was better. My taste in coffee is very mundane, and I can’t differentiate between a Starbucks coffee and a McDonald's coffee. I used to pull her leg saying that these people must have ripped her off, because the new, expensive one tasted the same as the last one!”
She was a proud Greek, fond of declaring, “There are two kinds of people in this world: Greeks and barbarians.”
“She was so full of life, and the way she spoke about everything made it fun,” Sarkar said. “You ask anyone who knew Sophia, they’ll tell you the same thing: she was quirky, and bubbly, and always had a laugh. She was offended by the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, not because of the movie’s title or because it made fun of Greeks, but because she said Greek weddings are way more fun than what the movie showed! And once, there was some construction on campus, and she picked up a piece of steel rebar and walked around claiming to be John the Baptist. She was so cool. Nothing bothered her, and she took life easy.”
She was also extremely close to her family, including her daughter Demi, her two sisters and her mother, who still lives in Greece.
“Her life was Demi and the university,” Sarkar said simply. “Her legacy here at Stevens is her dedication to building the civil engineering program and teaching. Sophia Hassiotis and the department — you can’t take one from the other. I cannot even imagine how it will be on the third floor of Rocco, having to come out of my office every day and not see her across the hallway. She brought all the life to that place. She was one of a kind.”