We define community in so many ways, from a broad concept of people living together in a society, to groups of individuals with common experiences and interests to connect them over time and distance.
Whatever your definition, what truly makes a community is a desire to be part of, and contribute to something bigger than ourselves. Based on this, Don Poon (BE’79) has made community a central focus of his personal and professional life.
Exploring the world
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Poon is the oldest of five children. His father was a successful contractor who encouraged his son to pursue an engineering degree so he could join the family business.
“There were two universities in Hong Kong, but like many young people in the 1970s, I wanted a foreign experience, I wanted to explore the world,” Poon said.
He set his sights on attending the University of Texas in Austin. His parents worried about him being so far from home, with neither friends nor family for support. Since they did have a friend whose children were attending the University of Saskatchewan, they suggested a compromise.
“That family connection is what brought me to Saskatoon. I came here first to ‘get my feet wet,’” Poon said. He attended Grade 12 at Evan Hardy Collegiate to learn the language and acclimatize to a different culture. An upbeat, gregarious personality, he quickly met new people, made new friends and, in his own words, “had a blast.”
“I loved the people, I found them friendly and genuine. They took the time to learn about my culture and treated me well. I was very moved by that, so I decided to stay and take my first year at the University of Saskatchewan.”
Even then, Poon still planned to transfer to the U of Texas. It’s funny how life has a way of redirecting youthful ambitions. Poon worked hard but he also enjoyed a balanced social life. He joined the Chinese Student’s Association (CSA), got involved in sports—and met Judy, a commerce student who happened to be a cheerleader for the CSA. Saskatoon began to feel a little more like home.
When Poon graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1979, he returned to Hong Kong and began work at an engineering firm. Judy travelled to Hong Kong as well, and spent the summer with his family before returning to the U of S for her final year. She graduated in 1980.
“Judy was born and raised here in Saskatoon, so Hong Kong was very different for her; culture shock, I think. Her family was here as well, so that pulled me back [to Saskatoon],” Poon said.
The couple married and made their life in Saskatoon, with frequent trips overseas to visit with his family. Their daughter Candace was born and raised in Saskatoon, and is also a U of S alumnus, having graduated with a BA in 2016.
Making a professional impact
Poon’s professional career has been shaped by community. He had a number of mentors through the years, his father being the first and most influential.
“I became an engineer because of my father’s influence, and the fact that he was a business owner also influenced me,” Poon said.
Several of his engineering professors became mentors. When Poon returned to Saskatoon from Hong Kong in 1980, the Canadian economy was struggling and job opportunities for young engineers were few and far between. His network of contacts helped him land a short-term position as a research engineer on campus. This led to an offer from a former professor, Gordon Sparks (now professor emeritus of civil and geological engineering), to join Sparks, Duffee & Associates, Ltd., a local consulting engineering firm.
“Professor Sparks helped launch my career, and I was very appreciative of the opportunity. I remember seeing all these talented young engineers moving to other provinces, and it made me sad,” Poon remembers.
That sense of loss stayed with him. When the consulting firm evolved into SAL Engineering Ltd. and Poon became the managing director, he made a conscious decision to hire and mentor Saskatchewan talent.
“All our engineers at SAL are University of Saskatchewan graduates, and our senior technologist is a Saskatchewan Polytechnic graduate; we like hiring interns and summer students from the U of S, too,” he said. There’s also a family connection: Poon’s wife is the company administrator.
SAL Engineering has completed more than $400 million in municipal and transportation engineering projects since Poon joined the company. For the past 38 years, his leadership has set the tone for the firm’s commitment to improving health, safety and quality of life for urban, rural and First Nation residents across Saskatchewan.
“Our work is timely and responsible. The quality and value of our work reflect directly on our professional reputations, both as individuals and as a firm.”
Poon is particularly proud of the relationships he and the company have built with First Nations communities, municipalities, and government. In recent years, SAL has provided project management services for schools, health centres, water treatment plants, pumping stations, recreational facilities, fire halls, and road and flood control projects.
The Pelican Narrows high school addition and renovation project earned SAL the first-ever Pinnacle Award from the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies—Saskatchewan (ACEC-SK) for highest achieving project submission, as well as the 2017 ACEC-SK Brian Eckel Award of Excellence for project management. The project was not only delivered under budget and ahead of schedule, it provided over 22,500 hours of training and employment for local workers.
Poon has also been personally recognized for his commitment to the profession with a number of service awards, including the prestigious 2012 Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan Meritorious Achievement Award.
He continues to volunteer his time for a variety of professional associations, including the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan, the ACEC-SK, Western Canada Water and Wastewater Association and the American Water Works Association. He is one of a select group of Canadians to become a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and his long-standing memberships in the Institution of Civil Engineers in the United Kingdom and the European Federation of National Engineering Associations keep him in touch with the international engineering scene.
Why does he do all this—mentor, teach, hire local, volunteer, nurture relationships? “I like working with people,” Poon said. “As a young man, I benefitted from the unique experiences and expertise of the people around me. They provided life-long lessons that I treasure. Meeting people from all walks of life has helped me chart my own personal path, and I think that’s been good for me and also good for those who know me.
“I think it’s important for senior people to mentor younger people—that’s why I’m involved in so many communities.”
Photos by David Stobbe.
Connecting an international community
In 2014, over 100 alumni attended the Chinese Students’ Association (CSA) 35th Reunion in Saskatoon. Don Poon helped organize the event, which was billed as the first (and to date, only) time the CSA’s reunion was held at the University of Saskatchewan.
“We planned the event for over two years, and we had great support from the alumni, the university and the College of Engineering,” Poon said. “We organized a campus tour, a gala banquet, karaoke in the Upper MUB, a soccer game at Griffith Stadium—it was a fun program. Some alumni brought their sons and daughters to see the U of S, see where they went to school.”
Approximately 41 per cent of attendees came all the way from Hong Kong to attend, another 36 per cent travelled from Alberta, B.C. and Ontario, and the rest were from Saskatchewan. They came for a chance to step back in time and reconnect with friends and former classmates, to visit old haunts and to see how the campus has changed over the years.
The reunion was so successful, there was a little money left over. The CSA decided to establish a one-time scholarship to reward the academic achievement of an international student who had completed a first year of study at the U of S. It’s another example of the collateral benefits of staying connected to community.