PCC welding student does his education his way
Photos and Story by Meryl Lipman
Portland Community College welding student Russell Emch is a self-described nomad.
Originally from Hemet, a high desert town between Los Angeles and San Diego, Emch served in the Navy and began welding at age 26. He found that he liked metal work and enrolled in a Long Beach, Calif., trade school, assuming he would work in the shipyards. But after that short term program ended, Emch said he began “tumbleweeding around.” He had all but chosen to live in Seattle in the winter of 2008, but instead came to Portland.
“I found out about the PCC Welding Program, put myself on the wait list and headed back to California,” he said.
In 2009 Emch was admitted to the program and returned to Portland with no apartment and little money. His grades were excellent and he applied for PCC Foundation scholarships. In spring 2010, he received two awards, the Lorraine Bertrand and Granger Tools for Tomorrow scholarships. After careful thought, Emch accepted the Granger award and gave the Lorraine Bertrand back. That scholarship ended up going to an acquaintance of his.
“She needed it,” said Emch.”So, that’s cool that we both could get one.”
To help serve the additional students like Emch, the PCC Foundation is in its third, and final, year of the Miller Foundation’s Scholarship Challenge where the college has an opportunity to make it easier for hundreds of students to reach their educational goals via scholarships. The Foundation has about $55,000 left to raise before March 31 in order to earn $320,000 in additional scholarship funding through Miller. Read more about the Miller Challenge.
When asked why he declined the second scholarship in a time of obvious hardship, Emch said he did not want to mooch off the people of Oregon, since he plans to move on after graduation. Remember, he’s a nomad.
The staff and faculty who know him hope he will reconsider. Despite his rambling persona, Emch has a definite Oregon style. He shows up at the Rock Creek Career Center in suede welding gear, sporting a buzz cut and shaped goatee, with cutting and measuring tools spilling out of each pocket. He looks like a cross between a hipster, a cowboy, an engineer, and a dock worker. And, in his spare time, Emch likes to form sculptures out of scrap metal.
“I don’t like to waste anything,” he explained.
Two of his recycled sculptures adorn the walls of the Career and Student Employment Center in Rock Creek’s Building 9. The artworks, created to hang in corners, are companion pieces. One depicts the moon, the other a sunburst. Both were made from scrap metal plating.
Emch gave one to the center staffers who helped him write his résumé, explore blacksmithing as a possible career, and put together a professional portfolio. When he speaks of the student services and career center staff, his tensile energy relaxes a bit.
“They’re my net,” he said.
Student Employment and Cooperative Education Specialist Tamara Williams downplays the compliment.
“He’s a high-functioning student,” said Williams, who is also the Veterans’ Club Staff Coordinator. “We just pointed him in a direction.”