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New York brothers move to oil patch, work 80-hour weeks to pay off student loans

Eric Steff

WILLISTON, N.D. - After four nights of sleeping in a pickup in the Williston Walmart parking lot in January, Levi Steff was ready to go home.

But then the 22-year-old from western New York, who moved to the Oil Patch with his older brother, went to a local church service and heard a sermon about not giving up.

"It seemed like the preacher was just speaking to us," Levi said.

Levi and 26-year-old Eric Steff decided to keep going. Now they're paying off their student loans while getting a chance to experience something new.

"It's the best adventure of my life," Eric said.

It was Eric who initially had the idea to move to Williston after hearing news coverage about the job opportunities.

Eric passed through Williston on the train after visiting a friend in Oregon. He spent a couple of days in Williston and thought he had jobs and housing lined up for himself, Levi and a friend.

But just as they were getting ready to leave New York, they found out the jobs were not panning out.

One night in their grandma's basement - weeks after their going-away party - the three decided to drive to Williston and try their luck.

They spent their first week in the Walmart parking lot, the three of them sleeping in Eric's pickup with Levi curled up by the gas pedals. They brushed their teeth in the Walmart bathroom and bought gym memberships to shower.

"It was horrible," Levi said.

They met people from different churches and were able to sleep on a church floor while they continued looking for work.

Finding jobs - particularly ones that offered housing - took longer than they expected.

"If you have no experience, it's a lot harder than people lead you to believe," Eric said.

Levi was the first to find a job. He said he works as a welder's helper near Tioga, where he is provided housing in a man camp.

Eric initially got a job through a temp agency doing pipe inspection. He recently started working for Superior Oil near Williston, where he loads and unloads trucks and runs a forklift. He also is provided housing in a man camp.

Their friend did not find a job that provided housing and returned to New York.

Eric and Levi each work 80 or more hours per week. Last week, Eric worked 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and Levi worked the opposite 12-hour shift at his job.

Both are focused on earning enough money to become debt-free and start saving for the future.

Eric, who has a four-year degree in biology, estimates he has $30,000 in student loan debt, along with another $10,000 in credit card debt and a $10,000 vehicle loan.

Levi said he has about $12,000 in student loan debt from an associate degree.

They're also trying to have fun while they're here, and they enjoy connecting with other people who have relocated to the Oil Patch.

"It's so refreshing to be around so many people who have such a heart of adventure," Eric said.

Dalrymple is a Forum Communications Co. reporter stationed in the Oil Patch.

She can be reached at or (701) 580-6890