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Vicki Scharnhorst

K-State graduation year: 1982
B.S. Civil Engineering
Other degree received:
Advanced Management Program, Harvard Business School
Current employer:
Tetra Tech
Operations Manager 

Describe the process of choosing your major.

As a young girl, I had an avocation and love for the natural environment, and saw Civil Engineering as a direct path toward sustainable clean water and responsible use of our resources.

What activities/organizations were you involved in while in college?
  • American Society of Civil Engineers
  • Alpha Xi Delta sorority
  • Concrete Canoe construction and paddling
Did you complete an internship or have related work experience prior to receiving your job?

I was able to secure a summer position on a survey crew with the Kansas Department of Transportation.  I worked another summer mapping potential hazardous waste sites relative to the 100-year flood plain.  The data was submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assist them in understanding flood-caused water quality challenges.

Describe the process of finding your first job.

I was lucky to have a family member who was an engineer working at the Hanford Reservation in Washington State. She assisted me by setting up a series of interviews over a two day window. 

Briefly describe a typical day at your job.

I manage a group of geologists, scientists, metallurgists and mining professionals for a publically-held firm.  Generally, my job is to ensure that the personnel in my group have the resources they need (time, personnel, software, and other support) in order to perform world – class work for our clients.  In any given day, I spend some time mentoring and coaching; guiding the group’s direction and strategy; speaking with clients regarding their projects (or potential projects); working on projects technically or as a Project Manager; organizing and leading our group regarding marketing and technical endeavors; and handling administrative items (i.e. budgets, approvals, requests for information from my supervisors or those above, ensuring staff are getting the support they need from marketing, administrative, IT, accounting personnel).

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Working with very bright, hard-working colleagues, who enjoy pulling together for a common goal.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
  • Managing and balancing the work load for the group – there is always either too much to do or not enough work for the group.
  • Marketing new work – backlog is the life blood of any consultancy.
  • Staying abreast of industry trends that can reset and revise our strategy (“What we do, for whom, where and how we do it”)
What advice would you give someone interested in your field?

Stick with it.  It’s hard, but the rewards are there for those who are tenacious.  Be bold – don’t be afraid to branch out and try things outside your field.  You can do almost anything with an engineering background as long as you are willing to work hard and stick with it.

What were the stepping stones that led to your current career?

I’ve been willing to take jobs in locations that others didn’t want!  This has led to a wide-open career path.  For instance, I first worked at a remote project site as a general civil and structural engineer at a nuclear facility (Hanford) which was a location that perhaps other may not have been as excited about; later I moved to Las Vegas to start my water resources engineering career.  I often have projects or clients that were considered “difficult” and I took on marketing challenges to win work others said could not be won.  Later I was relocated to Detroit, Michigan and was required to live in the city for this particular assignment.  I received a promotion, but was required to move to Florida to run the region (where the existing operation was having great difficulty - losing money and morale was low).  As I look back, it seems that the times I took on the tough assignments were generally when I learned the most and received the greatest career boost.

Has your career path taken any unconventional turns that you never would have expected?

I have been involved in a very broad array of activities.  In addition to leading engineering organizations, I have done a lot of marketing and a lot of writing.  The writing skills have been immeasurably helpful as so much of what we do ends up being conveyed through the written word.  For a time I assisted a marketing firm in managing their business (including writing contracts), preparing press releases and writing content for websites.  It was a lot of fun.  I’ve branched out to learn about management consulting, career counseling and recently changed from being largely involved in wet infrastructure to the mining and minerals industry (while keeping projects and responsibilities in the water resources field, too).  It keeps me challenged as I’m continually engaged and it forces me to work harder in order to learn new fields.

How have any changes in your life situation affected your career path?

Although I have spent most of my career as married and have two children, I’ve always been willing (and able) to take on new assignments and challenges.  I’ve relocated several times throughout North America, and this has allowed me to continue to grow professionally.

What job have you enjoyed the most and why?

I enjoy any of my jobs where I have the opportunity to lead high-performance teams.  I love it when the client gives the team a “Wow – this is really great work” or “I can’t believe you met this impossible deadline” or “I love working with your team – I know they’ll always come through for me”.

Was there a specific class you remember that sparked your interest in your career direction?

I have always gravitated to the wet infrastructure and water resources curricula due to a lifelong interest in the subject. 

Was there a specific person in college who had a significant impact on your life or career?

Professor James Koelliker was instrumental in helping me turn the corner scholastically and allowing me to gain confidence.

What didn't college teach you that you wish you would have known before you started your career?

At the time, I was not in a place that fostered confidence in my capabilities, but now I’d say that I have developed that confidence and feel that I am articulate, talented and have so very much to offer the world!  I wish I would have known that it would all turn out “OK”. 

Do you keep in touch with your college classmates? How have those relationships influenced your career?

After graduating from K-State, I lived and worked in the northwest, southwest, northeast and finally in the southeast before I was relocated to the Denver, Colorado area.  Once I was “in the vicinity” of K-State, I reached out to the Chair of the Civil Engineering Department and asked how I might become involved with the school.  It was fortuitous that there was an opening on the Civil Engineering Advisory Council, where I served two consecutive terms.  After completion of that engagement, I was offered the opportunity to serve on the Dean’s Engineering Advisory Council and am completing a five-year term.  This has allowed me to connect with a large number of engineering alumni and have greatly enjoyed being active, once again, with the University and the College of Engineering.

These relationships have turned into business opportunities and have allowed me to meet a number of K-State alumni outside of Manhattan.  My husband and I try to take in at least one or two games each year which we thoroughly enjoy, and are always looking for opportunities to work with other K-Staters.