Student Stories

Kelsey Harpham

Kelsey Harpham

Former engineering student
Project Manager, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation

Kelsey Harpham is on the front lines of climate change response. As the project manager for the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, an international NGO, she leads an initiative that helps countries self-assess and enhance their water resilience at a time when droughts are happening worldwide.

"We're currently working with over 20 countries to review national climate plans and policies — such as those developed to meet commitments of the Paris Agreement — and to build capacity and support development of recommendations to strengthen national climate plans," Harpham explains.

"The faculty were not only excellent in their fields but were amazing as teachers — something that's not true in every higher academic setting."

The project utilizes a "Water Tracker" diagnostic guide that offers a practical, actionable tool to aid countries in strengthening their national climate plans. "I find this work fulfilling because it allows me to learn from partners all over the world who are leading in the implementation of innovative climate adaptation approaches, and to facilitate opportunities for shared learning," she adds. "It gives me hope for the future to see such passion and collective action."

Harpham had already attained a bachelor's degree in urban and environmental policy prior to enrolling at COCC. "I had my BA in policy, but after a couple of years of work I realized that I wanted to have a more technical background to better understand the intersection of policy and science and engineering," Harpham says. By taking requisite preparatory coursework at COCC, she was able to enter Oregon State University's graduate program in water resources engineering.

Along the way, Harpham was selected to become a Henry Luce Foundation scholar, working for the Vietnam-based International Centre for Environmental Management, where she was engaged in projects across Asia — from Mongolia to Indonesia — geared toward water resource management and disaster risk reduction. Other professional experiences include serving as a wastewater engineer for industrial and municipal water system clients throughout the U.S. and working in the development office at the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council in Bend.

Having gone far in a short period of time, Harpham appreciates the stepping stone that COCC offered. "The faculty were not only excellent in their fields but were amazing as teachers — something that's not true in every higher academic setting. They were enthusiastic and passionate, drawing in all students regardless of backgrounds and goals."

Erik Kersenbrock

Erik Kersenbrock

Former physics student

Erik Kersenbrock crisscrossed some challenging terrain before landing at COCC. Determined to seek out adventure after high school, the Kansas native backpacked the entire Appalachian Trail, hitchhiked through sprawling sections of the U.S., and immersed himself in wilderness living and primitive skills for a time.

It was those aspects of curiosity and discovery that later coalesced into engineering studies at COCC. "I can't say that I 'chose' the field of engineering," he explains. "I have always been curious about how things worked. I look at a process and wonder how it can be more efficient."

"I have never felt a sense of community like I have found at COCC."

While living out of his tangerine-colored, 1990 Ford Collins school bus, Kersenbrock maintained a 4.0 GPA at COCC, notching a place on the dean's list every term. He went on to be named a member of the 2020 All-Oregon Academic Team, and on the heels of earning an American Association of Community Colleges national scholar prize, he opened his email one day to find this incredible message: "You've been accepted into Stanford University."

"It's a total lifestyle change," says Kersenbrock. But he's put in the mileage. Now nearing completion of his bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering from Stanford, Kersenbrock is conducting an internship with a battery research company that's recycling copper and repurposing the raw material for new battery production.

Looking back, he remembers being impressed with the responsiveness of COCC's staff in phone calls when he was first researching colleges. That early impression has endured. "I have never felt a sense of community like I have found at COCC," he shares.

Austin Steimer

Austin Steimer

Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree
Product development Engineer, EarthCruiser Overland Vehicles

In the right hands, an essential physics lesson can be illustrated thoughtfully on the back of a napkin. Austin Steimer recalls how a formative lesson at COCC was sketched out in that very way by a seasoned instructor. "My professor showed the power of how a simple calculation could help you predict physical action in endless real-world scenarios," he remembers. "He had a way of bringing math to life."

For military veteran Steimer, who has long had an affinity for building things, his path beyond the service found a perfect reset at the College. "During my time in the military, I saw the practical application of math and physics and knew that I wanted to get into a technical degree that applied those subjects to real-world applications," says the former U.S. Marine marksmen. "The faculty, as a whole, were top tier and very personable. If you needed help or didn't understand something, there was always room for one-on-one Q&A."

Steimer would receive a physics-focused Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree at COCC and then earn a bachelor's degree in energy systems engineering from OSU-Cascades.

"The faculty, as a whole, were top tier and very personable."

His engineering talent and fascination took him to EarthCruiser Overland Vehicles, first as an intern and later as the engineering department manager, where he has helped the company develop from a 10-person enterprise to a company of more than 60 employees. The company designs off-road, live-in vehicles for adventure and global travel.

"There were countless 'make it happen' moments that I am very proud of in the beginning years of EarthCruiser," he says, "but watching the company grow into what it is today has been the most rewarding. We have become the leader in the U.S. overland marketspace." Steimer recently moved into a new product development wing for the company. "I am looking forward to the opportunities and projects that will bring."