UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the storms roll in, Alex Swithers’ professors know he might be a little late on his assignments.
That’s just a fact of life for Swithers, a Penn State World Campus student in the bachelor's in energy and sustainability policy program who also works as a first responder for areas devastated by natural disasters while raising a young family.
Swithers works for TRC Companies, a consulting, engineering, and construction company focused on a range of areas, including the energy, sustainability, government, and transportation sectors.
Swithers works on a team that swoops in to assess storm damage and quickly organizes a plan to mitigate it. It’s the kind of job where the work can pile up on a moment’s notice and the timeline to completion is often unknown. A job could last a few days. Or, in the case of the recent Category 4 Hurricane Ida, the job could take weeks.
“I check my NOAA app every day,” said Swithers, 32.
The energy and sustainability program, which includes a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science, is offered online in partnership with the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and its John A. Dutton e-Education Institute.
In the initial assessment for Hurricane Ida, Swithers’ team found roughly 26,000 downed power lines — including 2,000 miles of transmission wire — and an offline nuclear power plant that needed power to be functional. His team worked in 16-hour shifts to restore power to the area.
“We love seeing our students excelling in their fields, real-time,” said Haley Sankey, assistant teaching professor in the Dutton Institute. “Many of our students already work in industry, where they’re able to apply their classroom learning immediately.”
In working with unknowns, Swithers said one thing is certain: storms are getting more frequent and bigger, which is causing more damage and outages. And this cycle stretches responders’ response time thin during the hurricane season.
Swithers remembers one trip — where he was called to Alabama and spent about a month there off and on — where he spent Halloween night guarding a live, downed power line as crews worked to triage the damage from the storm.
“The first couple days, everyone is so happy and grateful to see you,” Swithers said. “But after about day four or five days, everything starts to turn up a notch and tensions get higher and higher.”
That’s understandable, he said. He lived in West Palm Beach, Florida, and remembers losing power for weeks. His family history is filled with members who are a part of the energy industry.
That’s part of what drew him to the job and now to Penn State, where he wants to use his expertise in a variety of areas to impact the future of the energy realm.
Swithers tried once to earn his undergraduate degree and nearly got there. He earned about 130 credits at another university before jumping into the industry. A decade of life experiences helped him find his calling. Now he sees a need for those with his expertise as the energy system shifts to one that’s more sustainable and reliable. This shift is going to require engineers and policymakers to work together so that those goals are achieved while keeping energy prices affordable. It’s also going to require a change in thinking to incorporate a much greater percentage of renewable energies.
“That’s what drew me to the ESP degree,” Swithers said. “I have a background in engineering. And I’ve worked in agriculture and civil engineering. I love this component of this major. It’s a great kind of space to be in, especially with where I think we’re going to go in the next couple decades.”
Learn more about the degrees and certificates in energy and sustainability that are offered online through Penn State World Campus.