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Penn College civil engineering student ‘adapts’

From buildings to bridges, civil engineers conceive, develop and maintain infrastructure essential to daily life. David J. Fedor tells his Pennsylvania College of Technology students they must be adaptable to meet that grand responsibility. Every project has unanticipated difficulties to address and overcome.

Brandon J. Sensenich, of Lancaster, doesn’t flinch when absorbing Fedor’s message. The civil engineering technology student proved his adaptability with a challenge more significant than any structure.

Sensenich had to relearn how to walk, talk and eat before returning for his second semester at Penn College.

Brandon J. Sensenich, of Lancaster, has overcome a horrific car accident to advance to his junior year in the civil engineering technology program at Pennsylvania College of Technology.
Brandon J. Sensenich, of Lancaster, has overcome a horrific car accident to advance to his junior year in the civil engineering technology program at Pennsylvania College of Technology.

Today, Sensenich’s appearance and movements belie that he is 31 months removed from a horrific car accident that nearly ended his life. There are marks resulting from a tracheotomy and surgeries to replace both femurs and his left tibia with titanium rods, but Sensenich’s actions and attitude all but camouflage those scars.

“The accident has definitely changed my outlook on life,” he said. “I learned to never take life for granted because we are not guaranteed tomorrow. I also gained confidence that I can persevere when life gets tough by working hard and having faith that I can overcome any obstacle.”

The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be Sensenich’s latest hurdle, canceling plans to intern with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for the second straight summer. He adapted by securing a summer job with Wickersham Construction & Engineering Inc., a Lancaster-based general contractor whose latest projects include the footers and ride station for Hersheypark’s new roller coaster: Candymonium.

Sensenich spent June tirelessly cleaning and pouring concrete at the loading station for Candymonium, the longest (4,636 feet), fastest (76 mph) and tallest (210 feet) coaster at Hersheypark.

“I can’t wait to tell my family and friends when we go on that coaster that I helped pour that concrete,” he said.

Candymonium wasn’t the highway repair work Sensenich envisioned, but the experience has been sweet.

“It has definitely renewed my interest in structural engineering,” he said. “Learning how they poured the concrete foundations, how they inspect the foundations and how the foundations withstand the forces of the coaster have really interested me. It has also helped me understand what goes into construction. Communication between the contractors, the engineers and architects is so critical!”

“The civil engineering technology program prepares graduates with a broad range of knowledge, and there are many career paths to choose from in the profession,” explained Fedor, an assistant professor and Sensenich’s adviser. “What Brandon has experienced this summer is that when a first choice doesn’t work out, there are many more opportunities to explore that could be even better. He is developing an adaptable skill set that provides him with choices.”

The construction and engineering field has been Sensenich’s career choice since childhood, the result of his father’s work as a carpenter and a fascination with the mechanical. In high school, the Architecture Construction Engineering Mentor Program pointed Sensenich to Penn College.

One visit convinced him to apply.

“I fell in love with the campus and the civil engineering department,” he said. “I was impressed with how interactive and hands-on the labs are. The engineering experience of the professors impressed me, as well. All of them are former civil engineers with so much field experience and knowledge.”

Sensenich had just completed a successful first semester when the accident jeopardized his education – and life.

A mangled vehicle bears mute witness to the roller-coaster ride that tested Sensenich emotionally and physically – and ultimately led him back to Penn College to resume his education.
A mangled vehicle bears mute witness to the roller-coaster ride that tested Sensenich emotionally and physically – and ultimately led him back to Penn College to resume his education.

Dec. 9, 2017, was snowy in Lancaster County. Sensenich was driving alone in the village of Holtwood when his vehicle hit a patch of black ice about a quarter of the way across a bridge. His car veered into the opposite lane and was T-boned on the passenger side by a pickup truck.

The impact broke three of the four largest bones in Sensenich’s body: both femurs (extends from the hip to the knee) and his left tibia (connects the knee joint with the ankle joint). Sensenich also suffered a brain hemorrhage.

“When I got to the hospital and they told me that I had a slight brain bleed, I was scared that I wouldn’t make it,” he said.

The next day, Sensenich fell into a coma caused by fat embolism syndrome.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a fat embolism occurs when fat cells from a broken bone enter the body’s circulatory system. Usually, the body clears the fat from circulation without damage. However, in rare cases, fat embolism syndrome develops, leaving the patient with serious medical issues. In Sensenich’s case, the fat cells traveled to his brain.

Prayers were answered a week later when Sensenich emerged from the coma. He could only recall details of the accident when prompted by his father.

“I was upset when my parents told me I couldn’t return for the spring semester,” he said.

Sensenich spent several weeks at Penn State Health Rehabilitation Hospital in Hershey for physical, occupational and speech therapy. By spring, he had relearned what he once took for granted: talking, eating and walking.

“I would say relearning how to talk was the hardest,” he said. “I had to whisper for like a week. I was afraid of talking loudly because there was still a hole in my throat. It took about a week to eat. I had to start with soft foods. The biggest challenge was getting the strength in my legs to walk again. It took me about two months until I was walking without a walker.”

Faith, family and the desire to continue his education at Penn College brightened Sensenich’s dark moments.

“The great experience I had during the fall semester drove me to come back,” he said.

Sensenich returned as a full-time student in the fall of 2018.

“It was very difficult because I had my first engineering classes, and it took me some time to get my brain back to where it was before the coma,” he said.

But he’s adapted. Sensenich has been tenacious in the classroom and lab to advance to his junior year in the civil engineering program with both an internship and summer work experience on his resume.

“Although Brandon’s traumatic experience was disruptive, it was transformational for him as a student and person,” Fedor said. “Confronting and overcoming that kind of adversity taught him than any life challenge can be an opportunity for greater success.”

Sensenich hopes that future success will come as either a structural or highway engineer.

“I still can’t decide between the two,” he said. “I’m sure this school year will help me make a decision.”

Regardless of the choice, Sensenich has proved that he will adapt.

Penn College offers a baccalaureate degree in civil engineering technology and associate degrees in civil engineering technology and surveying technology. For information about those programs and other majors in the School of Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.

The college is a national leader in applied technology education. Email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

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