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Alumnus Brian Desharnais Contributes to Large-Scale Civil Engineering Projects

Wednesday, May 06, 2015
Brian Desharnais

Brian Desharnais

Judging from where he was born, Brian Desharnais may not have been an obvious prospect to earn a career achievement award from Rose-Hulman.

The youngest of six brothers, Desharnais was raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a struggling former mill town with an average college graduation rate significantly below the national average. Also, neither of Desharnais' parents attended college. However, they instilled in him and his brothers a belief in education and a strong work ethic. Each morning, as he left for school, Desharnais' mother would say: "Make sure you get all 100s." That encouragement worked. Desharnais finished high school with a full academic scholarship to nearby Merrimack College, where he studied civil engineering.

One of Merrimack's faculty members was Tom Descoteaux, who later came to Rose-Hulman, and encouraged Desharnais to become a member of the institute's new master's degree program in environmental engineering. After being accepted into the program, Desharnais packed his 1986 Nissan and drove 1,000 miles westward to a campus he had never seen.

"I quickly noticed how electric the atmosphere was at Rose-Hulman," Desharnais recalled while passing along advice to undergraduate civil engineering students during a campus presentation before receiving the Alumni Association's Career Achievement Award earlier this spring. "Building expansions and renovations were underway (resulting from the successful Vision to be the Best campaign), equipment and facilities were state-of-the-art, and the faculty and staff were truly exceptional," he says.

After earning his master's degree at Rose-Hulman in 1995, Desharnais pursued a doctorate in civil engineering, which he later received from Northwestern University, and he became an award-winning civil engineering professor at Trine University in Angola, Indiana for several years. Then, there was another career change, this time taking a job with Commonwealth Engineers, an Indiana-based company that manages and designs some of the state's largest civil engineering projects involving wastewater, storm water, and environmental sustainability.

With Desharnais as vice president, director, and project manager out of the Fort Wayne office, Commonwealth has tackled some of the most ambitious and eye-popping civil engineering projects in Indiana, including massive, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-mandated projects in Indianapolis, Richmond, and Fort Wayne. These projects are designed to reduce pollution in local rivers.

"It's rewarding to work for Commonwealth Engineers, whose primary goal is to continuously improve the water quality and environment that we live in," Desharnais says. "I don't think I would have ever pursued this rewarding career path without the positive experience I had at Rose-Hulman."

Leaving teaching to become an engineering consultant was a big step, and one that forced Desharnais way outside of his "comfort zone," he recalls. He urged Rose-Hulman students to also spread their wings and try things that expand their horizons beyond science and mathematics. "It's important to map out career goals, but don't be afraid to periodically step out of your comfort zone when opportunity knocks. You may be surprised how much you will learn and grow," he says.