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Harms’ Way: Automotive scholar is using love of fixing things to find new career path
Photos and Story by James Hill
Katie Harms’ path toward a new career just got a big shot in the arm.
Harms, a second-year Automotive Service Technology Program student from Southeast Portland, earned a $4,000 Car Care Council Women’s Board scholarship. Her award was one of many that totaled $28,000 in national scholarships that went to high school and post-secondary students in the automotive service field. The Car Care Council Women’s Board is comprised of auto care professionals who provide opportunities, education and career leadership to women in the industry.
“I was very shocked that I got one for $4,000,” said Harms, a 29-year-old Corvallis native. “I was maybe expecting $100. It has a huge impact because my parents have been paying out of pocket for me to go to school due to previous student loans so I wasn’t able to qualify for more loans to go through this program. It’s a lot of money and will pretty much pay for the rest of my schooling.”
Her past student loans were from her culinary school, which she graduated from in 2010. After years of working as a cook at various restaurants in Portland, Harms realized she wasn’t passionate about the culinary world. So, she decided to follow her real love of fixing things and gravitated to PCC’s Automotive Service Technology Program because of its reputation.
“This one just seemed to fit my needs because I didn’t grow up in a family where there’s a bunch of mechanics,” Harms said. “(PCC instructors) could teach me from the bottom all the way up. I like working with my hands, and I like knowing how things work and I love tools.”
The Automotive Service Technology Program, which is a leader in alternative fuel vehicle repair and accredited by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation, trains students to be skilled service technicians. It provides the high-tech and fundamental skills necessary to succeed in a rapidly changing industry that includes more and more computers.
“On just your base models you have 30-40 module computer systems with networking, and if you can’t understand that you can’t fix them,” said Harms, who sports a 4.0 grade-point average. “The field is becoming more specialized.”
Harms’ story is made all the remarkable because she has battled drug addiction her entire life. It wasn’t until 2013 that she decided to make a change and get sober.
“I just kind of grew up,” she said.
The friends she was hanging out with, low self confidence and drug addiction by her biological parents (she was adopted as an infant) contributed to her own struggles.
“I’ve dealt with addictive behavior my entire life,” Harms reflected. “My mom and dad have stood behind me no matter what I did. Without them I wouldn’t be standing here right now. I just decided I was done with it and quit.”
Automotive Service faculty Scott Morgan has assisted her throughout her PCC tenure at the Sylvania Campus shop. He pushed her to find employment to enhance her second-year training, and as a result she secured a job with Sherwood Auto Repair this fall.
“Each day she brings such enthusiasm to class, asking questions, smiling and bringing the whole group together to learn more,” Morgan said. “Her success is not based on what she knew coming into the program but in her eagerness and openness in fitting each new piece she learns into the overall puzzle.”
Harms, who plans to earn an associate degree in applied science and may go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, said she couldn’t have gotten through her first year without PCC’s instructors.
“I didn’t grow up working on cars,” she said. “I’ve sort of annoyed my instructors with questions. I’m very particular. If I want to know something I want to know it correctly not just partially. All of them have expressed their belief in me, which is helpful for me because I don’t necessarily have all that much confidence being new to the industry. All the teachers I’ve had have been extremely helpful.”