Derek Minnema builds on a Sac State foundation as he leads region’s largest transportation project

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.”

Sacramento Republic FC keeper Josh Cohen balances school, professional sports

Josh Cohen’s regimented daily schedule begins sometime between 8 and 9 a.m. in the training room, where he’ll spend the next three to five hours. Then he gets a couple hours of downtime before heading to Sacramento State for his evening classes, which this semester start at 4 p.m.

Other evenings? You’ll find him on the soccer pitch, parked in front of the goal and trying to keep the Sacramento Republic FC’s opponent from scoring.

“Playing for Sacramento, in particular, is amazing just because of the fan base we have and the culture of the team in Sacramento,” said Cohen, the starting goalkeeper for the Republic. “At every game, we have 10,000, 11,000 people out there.”

Cohen also is a master’s in mechanical engineering student in his third semester at Sacramento State, balancing school with life as a professional athlete. The Sunnyvale native completed his undergraduate degree at UC San Diego.

Playing soccer professionally has been a dream of Cohen’s since he was a small child, but when that dream came true and he was deciding where to play, his higher education goals definitely were a factor.

“Choosing to play in Sacramento, (Sacramento State) did factor into that decision. I looked up the engineering program and looked up the schedule and the type of classes that were offered,” he said. “I liked how they divided up the coursework into different subcategories, and I could focus on one or two categories that were interesting to me.”

For Cohen, that meant focusing on automation and mechanical design. He enjoys building devices and machines, and says he enjoys working on side projects, such as the 3-D printer he made last year and continues to improve.

Though he hopes to continue playing soccer professionally for as long as possible, he hopes to work as an engineer when his playing days are over. And while his undergraduate education was focused on theory and seemingly on preparing people for academic careers, he says he appreciates Sacramento State’s focus on real-world education, something he knows will make him a more valuable employee whenever he does enter the workforce.

“My interest has always been more in the nitty-gritty, industry, getting-my-hands-dirty side of things,” Cohen said. “And I feel like here, I get a lot of experience.”

Derek Parker completes his degree and starts a new program at Sac State

Derek Parker ’10 (Career and Technical Studies) had two problems. Sacramento State helped solve both.

First, he was running an adult education paramedic program at the Sacramento school district’s Old Marshall School, a program he had built up from a single EMT class, and the program couldn’t be accredited unless its director had a bachelor’s degree. So Parker, who had left Sonoma State years earlier before graduating, enrolled in Sacramento State’s Bachelor of Science in Career and Technical Studies (BSCTS) program, one of several degree completion programs run through the College of Continuing Education (CCE).

Then funding for the program suddenly dried up.

“I had put all this work into creating this paramedic program that I believed in,” said Parker, who is also the battalion chief for the Sacramento Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) division. “I’ve got students who are in the program. I’ve got a whole slew of students who want to get into the program. I can’t just let this thing go.”

He contacted Jill Matsueda, director of academic programs with CCE, to see what could be done. The college was receptive, the school district signed off on a transfer, and, in 2009, the CSU’s first and still only paramedic program was born.

“We went to Sac State first, and they jumped on it,” Parker said.

Today, the paramedic program has made a tremendous impact on the fire department where Parker works: He estimates around 20 percent of the department’s employees have gone through it.

Parker’s path to a degree, and a job as a battalion chief, has been a little circuitous. After graduating from Merced High School in 1994, he enrolled at Sonoma State and played football there until the university cut the program in 1996. When he left school and prepared to enter the workforce, his grandmother suggested firefighting.

The entry level position in the industry was as a firefighter/paramedic, so Parker went to paramedic school and got a job with a local ambulance company.

“It’s the closest thing I could find to sport competition. When you’re addressing a sick patient, you have a limited amount of time, so there’s a little bit of pressure,” he said. “Can I complete all these tasks in a short period of time for the betterment of the patient? That’s what drives me. Pushing myself. I’m competing against myself.”

As a battalion chief for the EMS division, Parker is responsible for all of the division’s day-to-day operations. That means overseeing the individuals who work on ambulances, handling EMT and paramedic certification, ensuring that ambulances and other vehicles are in good working condition, and managing the budget. He also still responds to fires, and spends much of his time during the summer on incident management teams working to contain the state’s now-prevalent wildfires.

In addition to the project management skills he uses regularly in his current job, the BSCTS program included students from a wide variety of career backgrounds, something Parker says gave him a broader perspective he continues to find useful. For example, meeting people in the culinary industry provided insight that can come in handy when responding to a grease fire or other emergency at a restaurant. Interacting with students from a law enforcement background allowed him to better understand their perspective on emergency situations.

“You always think your kingdom is the most important kingdom, and I realized that it’s a neighborhood, not a kingdom,” he said.

A photo of Derek Parker, in uniform, at a Sacramento fire station
Derek Parker earned his bachelor’s degree from Sacramento State while at the same time starting the University’s paramedic program. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

With the paramedic program, Parker has taught close to 500 paramedic students who since have found jobs at fire departments, ambulance companies, hospitals and other employers throughout California and beyond. Students in the program receive hands-on learning experiences in a variety of areas, including advanced training in life support and terrorism preparedness, and leave with 30 units of academic credit.

Students in the paramedic program consistently rank higher than the national average when taking the National Registry Exam, a cognitive test required for paramedic certification.

The University runs two cohorts of paramedic program students each academic year, with 40 students admitted to the fall 2018 cohort and another 40 admitted to the spring 2019 cohort. According to the latest data from CCE, 90 percent of paramedic students became licensed after completing the program, and nearly the same number were employed within six months of graduation.

“Derek saw the untapped potential for Sacramento State to offer a paramedic program,” Matsueda said. “Traditionally, these programs are offered at the community colleges and from private providers, but Derek saw the potential for a level of quality and professionalism that would come with the academic oversight of University faculty.”