Boots on the Ground

Illustrated team working with marketing materials


When recent 山 graduate Nicholas Paesler started working with TMK Creamery for his senior business capstone, he went beyond his role as a student consultant.

As a communication lead on his team, he decided to forge a special bond with the business owners by driving out to see the local creamery and distillery, and meet them and their employees. This experience helped his team strengthen their partnership, and deliver an especially strong result.

"I really connected with the owners on a high level when I was able to go out to the creamery. I got to meet a few people, meet the cows and see what the operation was like," says Paesler. “I think I showed them how happy my team and PSU was to help them out."

Using knowledge they’ve gained at PSU throughout the course of their study, groups of senior business students join the capstone course to consult on projects for local business owners and receive supervision from an instructor with years of professional consulting experience.

The capstone forms the culmination of students’ time at PSU, giving them invaluable hands-on experience working with a real company just before they graduate. Local businesses, meanwhile, receive assistance with the challenges facing their company, as well as access to a group of next-generation consultants who are eager to share their cutting-edge knowledge and unique perspectives for free.

A Boon For Businesses

More than 150 local businesses apply to the program every year to get support with a specific business challenge or goal. Capstone Program Community Partnership Manager Hande Buyuksahin is in charge of whittling down the list of applicants, and selecting participants for each term.

“The criteria [for choosing the businesses] aligns with the PSU mission. The first one is diversity and representation,” she says. “Priority is given to businesses that are underrepresented and to diverse communities. This includes businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans, LGBTQ individuals or the economically disadvantaged.”

During the selection process, Buyuksahin also considers the potential impact of the work, the feasibility of a project and whether or not a company shows a commitment to equity in their own organization.

Once selected, Buyuksahin matches each business with a group of senior business students and an advising professor. The businesses share information about a challenge they’re facing, and an area in which they would like support or assistance during the term. In return, they receive tailored recommendations from students that move them closer to their goals.

The participants also gain less tangible benefits. “Businesses can learn about this generation, all their innovation and creativity, and [access] the finest, latest research in their industry, for whatever the challenge they're facing,” says Buyuksahin. And because the students are about to graduate, businesses also have a great opportunity to hire top talent from the graduating class.

The types of businesses that apply to the program range from large international companies like Microsoft to smaller, locally-owned businesses like bakeries or boutique consulting firms. What they share in common is a desire to address a pressing business challenge — and that’s where PSU students step in to help. 

Marketing A New Product Line

is a first-generation dairy farm in Canby that recently started distilling whey, a cheese-making byproduct, into vodka. Owner Tessa Koch and her husband Todd applied to the capstone program because they believed PSU students could help them navigate the next steps in producing and marketing a new product line, and fill in missing gaps in their business knowledge.

Milk, cheese, and "Cowcohol"

“We have the ability to farm and build things. We never had a business model, a business plan — that's where we lacked,” says Koch. “When this opportunity came up, I applied immediately.”

For Koch, it wasn’t just the students’ business expertise, but also their perspectives, that drew her to the program.

“It was not only for the fact that there would be undergrad students who are studying what I never studied when I was in school, but also to have an audience of younger people, and find out what they thought of our products,” says Koch.

Koch was impressed with the students on her team, especially how proactive, responsive and responsible they were in their communication. And the outcome from the partnership, Koch says, has already been beneficial. She and her husband are acting on the student recommendations, implementing social media ideas and using the numbers they crunched to help shape their forecasting model.

She encourages local business owners to take advantage of the program for their own benefit, and for the chance to inspire the next generation of business owners. 

I learned that it means a lot to be excited about your company, to be excited about the place you're working for, and let that drive the business. They were so dedicated to the company and the product, and that was felt by us. We reciprocated with wanting to do the best thing for them.

“This was an opportunity for me to encourage them to follow what they want to do,” says Koch. “Our business started with my husband as a 12 year old going into 4-H and deciding he loved dairy cows, and then he built his own dairy farm, and then many years later, we’re where we’re at now.”

As a member of the student team that collaborated with the creamery, Paesler formed a friendly relationship with the Kochs, and gained more respect for small business owners while working with them.

“I learned that it means a lot to be excited about your company, to be excited about the place you're working for, and let that drive the business,” says Paesler. “They were so dedicated to the company and the product, and that was felt by us. We reciprocated with wanting to do the best thing for them.”

Paesler also says he developed stronger communication skills during the project. “Something I got from this course was to really learn how to strategically and effectively communicate in a business setting because time is money,” he says.

Professor Lihong Qian has been teaching the capstone course for 12 years, and supervised the students who worked with TMK Creamery. “Tessa [Koch] was so passionate and so engaging that, from the first week, the students were hooked. They felt that they were doing something that was valuable,” Qian says. “This also gave them a sense of responsibility, because they were listened to. [They felt] they were changing someone’s life.”

Navigating Company Transitions 

Portland-based firm  offers a variety of technology consulting services to companies in Oregon, with plans to expand nationwide and then internationally. They applied to the capstone program last fall to assist with a transition within the company.

“As a small business, we are limited in financial and human resources,” says company president Wasi Khan. “The capstone project presented an invaluable opportunity for us to access specialized knowledge, strategic insights and practical assistance.”

During the term, the student team for the Galaxux project assisted with implementing a new project called the . “The network is a community engagement platform that focuses on firming up safety nets and expanding opportunities,”  says Khan. It aims to connect community members with resources by bridging gaps between the private and public sectors.

Khan’s company is already utilizing the student recommendations. “The insights have been instrumental in refining our strategies,” says Khan. “The benefits of these implementations are already becoming evident. The value of this program will be significant.”

For Luke Bounpakob, one of the members of the student team, it was his first time working as a consultant with a real company. He says the experience was both challenging and rewarding, and that he’s proud of the recommendations his team gave Khan, and the professional skills he developed during the project.

“Real world experience is the main benefit [of the course],” Bounpakob says. “It deals with many of the challenges and compromises that come with business consulting and working in a collaborative project.”

Students understand that they do have value, that they have something that the client needs to know – and that's very empowering.

Professor Jan Sturdevant has been teaching the capstone course for about ten years, and supervised the students who worked with Galaxux. Drawing from her own experience as a business consultant, she helped her student team discover the importance of backing their ideas up with research.

“The client didn't hire you for your gut — they want to know facts,” she says. This insight informed her students’ approach to the project, and made a lasting impact on them as well.

“Students understand that they do have value, that they have something that the client needs to know – and that's very empowering,” she says.

As for the partnership with Galaxux, Sturdevant says that Khan was happy with the results her team provided. “In fact,” she says, “He was pleased enough that he treated everyone in the class beyond just his team. He brought in Indian food for dinner.”

A Benefit To All

Through the business capstone program, students gain critical thinking skills, see social equity and DEI principles at play in a business context, improve their communication skills and engage with questions of sustainability and ethics. They get vital real-world experience before graduating, learn to deal with uncertainty and adversity and leave PSU with connections to local businesses and leaders.

And, true to the 山 mission to “Let Knowledge Serve the City,” companies gain cutting-edge expertise and a fresh perspective, all for free.

At the end of each term, Qian asks her capstone students to reflect on these themes in a final essay, and finds that many students also come away from the course with an increased sense of social responsibility.

“They want to do more for the community,” she says. “They are helping the client and the client really is intrigued, is really trusting the students, and the students feel a sense of responsibility. They go from being a learner to translating their knowledge to somebody who's going to use it, and that can change their life.”

If students are willing to engage and put in the work, the capstone program can provide meaningful lessons to carry with them after graduation – a testament to the time and energy that goes on behind-the-scenes to put on the course.

“I'm really proud of the school for maintaining the value of the course,” Sturdevant says. “It is a lot of work – it’s six credits – and I'm proud of them because a lot of schools would give up or make it three credits. This just shows to me they do care, they do know that you need that real-world experience and they put some teeth in it.”

Buyuksahin also lauds the many benefits of the course, and looks forward to the impact it will make for the next round of students and businesses.

“[The capstone course] exemplifies how our educational institutions can forge meaningful partnerships with local businesses and communities,” she says. “It forges a deep connection between students and companies, ensuring that learning transcends the confines of the classroom.”