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Local Talent
Author: Meg DesCamp, illustrations by Nguyen Tran
Posted: January 21, 2016

Because of their passionate beliefs and efforts, these seven alumni are making a difference in their Portland-area communities.

Hermann Colas, Jr.

Builder

“We have always hired a diverse workforce,” says Hermann Colas, Jr., ’77. “We do it because that’s how I set the company to be.”

The company is Colas Construction, which Hermann Colas founded in 1997. His company’s commitment to diversity doesn’t stop with hiring practices. Colas Construction also looks to the future of its industry by participating in service programs in the community. One such program is at Roosevelt High School in North Portland, where students get to visit active construction projects. The students see a diverse workforce excelling in careers that the students may not have considered. 

“At times the students are inspired by the stories of my company and its mission in our community.” 

Colas, who grew up in Haiti, remembers when he arrived in Portland to attend PSU in the mid-’70s, and the campus was brimming with international students. He loved the mix of cultures in downtown Portland.

“The international community—it was so important to me. And being at PSU, I was able to do what I needed to develop myself as a person. It helped me understand how the world was changing.”

Colas has seen an immense amount of change since his college days. He went to work for Pacific Northwest Bell straight out of PSU, eventually holding various positions with US West. However, having been raised in an entrepreneurial family—it owned the second largest rum distillery in Haiti, Rum Marie Colas—he was always looking for an opportunity to start his own firm. A stint as general contractor for the building of his own home showed him a new direction.

Today Colas Construction concentrates on commercial construction, including renovations, tenant improvements, mixed-use buildings and higher education. All three of his children work for the company, and he feels gratified that it is now being managed by a second generation. His legacy is assured.

Colin Cooper

City Builder

Keeping Hillsboro’s small town flavor while absorbing growth is a goal that Colin Cooper MURP ’99 takes seriously. 

Cooper is director of planning for Hillsboro, a city that has seen its population increase by more than 6 percent in the past five years compared to the state’s growth of 4.6 percent in the same time period.

Most of the expansion is due to the influx of employees from the surrounding high-tech companies. Projects such as the proposed AmberGlen Community, led by Cooper, will answer these new citizens’ call for big town amenities in a hometown atmosphere. The plan reimagines a typical suburban business park into a vibrant neighborhood with office, retail and housing surrounding a large central park.

AmberGlen is a good example of the kind of private-public partnerships that Cooper facilitates. He contributed to the final phase of the similar Orenco Station development and led a team of land-use and transportation planners as they crafted a finance plan for South Hillsboro, a 1,400-acre area that may include 8,000 housing units.

“As an urban planning student, you’re all about utopian visions,” Cooper says, remembering his days at PSU. “But one of my professors, Sy Adler, said something that totally changed my thinking: As an urban planner, you’re part of the whole development scheme. 

“That one comment made me open up and decide to learn everything I could about the private sector. Being able to see and balance both sides—public and private concerns—has been a huge part of my success.”

Michelle & Ben Medler

Jazz Musicians

Michelle Medler ’01 was the Lisa Simpson of her day. In her heart she was—and is today—a jazz saxophonist. But with no band until she reached fifth grade, she first took up the violin in her school orchestra. She picked up the saxophone a year later and has never put it down.

Now Medler and her husband, Ben ’01, are all about providing opportunities for budding jazz musicians. Fifteen years ago they founded the Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra (PYJO). Today it includes 80 young musicians from the Portland metro area who rehearse, study and perform jazz in six PYJO bands. The youngest musicians are 11 years old.

As if running a music program were not enough, the Medlers together and separately perform with the Shanghai Woolies, The Quadraphonnes, Trombone 8, the Medler Septet, the Chris Baum Project and ever-changing trios, quartets and quintets. 

Teaching seems to come naturally for the couple, who have always taught as they performed and perfected their own music. From 1994 to 2001, they built an award-winning band program at Wilson High School while attending Portland State.

During their own education, Michelle remembers being encouraged by PSU faculty to go to clubs, listen to live music and network in Portland. “By the time we graduated, we were completely integrated into the Portland music scene.”

Peg Sandeen

Death with Dignity Advocate

Nearly one in six Americans now lives in a state where assisted death is possible for qualified individuals.

Peg Sandeen PhD ’13 knows this fact better than most. She is director of the Portland-based Death with Dignity National Center. Her work with the center and as adjunct faculty in PSU’s School of Social Work has had a profound effect on how our nation looks at end-of-life choices.

Sandeen assists state legislators around the nation, helping them to craft, promote and pass laws that allow terminally ill patients to end their lives. California’s death with dignity law, which passed in October, is based on Oregon’s 1997 law. Vermont passed its law in 2013 and a death with dignity act was passed in Washington in 2008. Courts in Montana have been safeguarding physician-assisted death since 2009.

“At the core of social work are autonomy and self-determination, dignity and the worth of the person. I believe that death with dignity represents all those things,” she says.

Sandeen, 49, acknowledges the opposition some people have to her work and points out that safeguards are built into each state’s law. “We make sure that doctors, pharmacists, and caregivers know they have an opt-out clause. No one has to participate if they object.”

The Oregon Sports Lottery Graduate Scholarship helped support Sandeen during her time at PSU. “I was a working mom. My daughter was in sixth grade when I came here. Having the scholarship support was incredibly important.

“I’m so privileged to be in my position,” says Sandeen. “I go to work every day and support my family doing the thing I’m most passionate about. I’m a policy-focused social worker at the core, and there aren’t that many jobs for people like me.”

Vera Sell

Volunteer

Portland State felt like home for German native Vera Sell MIM ’06 soon after she enrolled in the master’s program in international management. She chose the program after moving to Portland with her husband, a new Intel hire.

“There was lots of diversity in age and work experience, and a lot of international students. And I loved the whirlwind of the program—one year, full-time,” remembers Sell.

She credits PSU with giving her the confidence to move forward in her career.

“PSU does a really good job of connecting students to the community. I used to think I couldn’t work in high tech because I’m not an engineer. By exposing me to careers in high tech, PSU took those fears away.”

Now a Tektronix product marketing manager and the mother of two young children, Sell, age 33, remains active at PSU. She mentored two students last year from the MIM and MBA programs, and will mentor two more in 2016. In addition, she sponsored a PSU student capstone project with Tektronix focused on a new product manufacturing decision that grew into two projects.

“The VP was impressed with the work and sponsored a follow-up project,” says Sell. “Although I changed jobs from operations to product line marketing, I stayed on as the primary contact for the PSU team. The final presentation was in December and the students rocked it.”

In addition to her one-on-one work with students, Sell is a member of the School of Business Administration’s Graduate Alumni Ambassador Council and is involved with TiE Oregon, the local chapter of a global nonprofit that fosters the next generation of entrepreneurs through mentoring, education and angel funding. 

“I really do believe in giving back. You can never repay the people who helped you, so it’s all about paying it forward.”

Tymon Emch

Educator

For six months Tymon Emch MEd ’13 taught in Peru, where he observed a disconnect between his school’s curriculum and the lives of the children it served. That is, until he helped create hands-on classes based on a love for art, music, archeology and writing, which inspired the children, particularly the teenagers.

“I thought sincere, passionate learning opportunities could help combat teenage apathy,” says Emch, who had studied biology, chemistry and Spanish as an undergrad. “At the time I felt that providing an alternative to public education was the answer.”

When he returned to Bend, Oregon, Emch organized after-school classes not taught by educators, but by artists and other members of the Bend community. The classes included screen printing, stencil graffiti, hip-hop, slam poetry and stand-up comedy, and some were taught in Spanish.

Today, the program he founded in 2009, Cada Casa, has served about 450 students in after-school high school programs in Central Oregon and the Portland metro area, and more than 1,500 students through classroom programs.

“We started with after-school programs, but found that pushing into the classroom was more effective. So we focused on pairing with teachers, writing grants, and entering the schools that way.”

When Emch decided to attend PSU’s Graduate School of Education, the Michael and Marjorie Fiasca Scholarship helped offset his tuition. The scholarship is awarded to graduate students who plan to teach physical or natural sciences in Oregon schools. A native English speaker with a passion for Spanish, Emch was also part of the Bilingual Teacher Pathway, a scholarship program that supports bilingual teachers. 

Emch, 31, now teaches dual-language physics and chemistry at Beaverton High School and is educational director for Cada Casa. He plans to continue teaching while expanding Cada Casa’s reach in the Portland area. “It’s an opportunity for me to combine a lot of my passions.”