Homing in on a career path while a Sacramento State student, Derek Minnema gravitated toward civil engineering because it offers the most tangible evidence of one’s work.
“At the end of the day, what you’re building are roads or water systems, bridges, buildings,” he said. “They are things that are real, that you can touch, and that can have a big impact on society.”
It’s no surprise, then, that he’s leading creation of a 34-mile highway connecting Interstate 5 in Elk Grove to Highway 50 in Folsom, the region’s largest transportation project, one with the potential to transform Sacramento County.
Minnema, as executive director of the Capital SouthEast Connector Joint Powers Authority, is responsible for all aspects of the project, from budgeting and approvals to engineering and design work. And much of that work draws on skills he learned at Sac State.
“Everything is hands on,” he said of the University’s Engineering program. “The professors were available and wanted to see you succeed. I still, to this day, have great relationships with professors who are still there.”
The department also brought industry representatives into the program to share their knowledge and experience, he said. And a semester-long capstone assignment allowed senior students to work in teams on a longer-term project – exactly the kind of work they would undertake once entering the workforce.
Minnema didn’t forget those experiences after graduating. He has mentored Sacramento State students, serves on the University’s Industry Advisory Council, and offered the SouthEast Connector project as a host organization for a senior project. Students spent the semester figuring out how to construct the road through the small town of Sheldon in a way that the community would support and that minimized disruptions – ultimately presenting their findings to the project’s board of directors.
“It was one of the best meetings we ever did,” Minnema said. “The board members loved it. The students did a great job.”
A passion for civil engineering and a desire to give back weren’t the only things Minnema got from Sacramento State. His fellow students, he says, became crucial business contacts down the line. And his time with Associated Students Inc. – he served as director of Engineering and Computer Science – prepared him for a job in which communicating with the public and gaining its input is essential.
“Being in student government was the first taste of that for me, because not only do you have to run a campaign, but you’re constantly interfacing with the local organizations, clubs and students,” he said. “That created the foundation for a lot of public advocacy and outreach work that I do now.”
Before his time with the SouthEast Connector project, Minnema worked in the private sector on a variety of regional projects, including the redevelopment of Kaiser’s South Sacramento medical center, a street beautification project along Del Paso Boulevard, and numerous transportation projects such as interchanges and railroad grade separations. Early in his career, he had the opportunity to work at Sac State on the new University Bookstore and the Academic Information Resource Center.
Many engineering students graduate with dreams of working around the world on massive, landmark construction projects, said Minnema, who grew up in Dixon and now lives in Fair Oaks. But there is an entirely different, and potentially greater, satisfaction that comes from staying local.
“Working on big projects is great. You do get a certain amount of pride with large, complicated, challenging projects,” he said. “But at a certain point you want to have an impact in the neighborhood and the community where you live.
“I can get in the car with my kids and show them things I had a role in building. As a parent, as a father, that’s a cool thing to do.”