Thomas Sanders working on machinerary.

Thomas Sanders is a mechanical and energy engineering major who is part of a unique and selective program that pays students to attend college while also preparing them for careers in the Navy. The program is called the Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate Program, or NUPOC, and it allows students to make a regular annual salary in exchange for maintaining a high GPA, graduating from college with a relevant degree, and committing five years to the Navy.

Sanders has been in the program since 2017, which offers students one of five positions in the Navy upon graduation. Those interested in the program may apply for any or all five position types: surface warfare officer, submarine officer, instructor for the Naval Power School, instructor for the Nuclear Power Training Unit, or an engineer at the Naval Reactors headquarters. Sanders plans to work as a submarine officer after graduating and leaving UNT.

“This program has really been great for me. I get to be highly paid to uphold high standards and obtain my degree,” said Sanders. “When I graduate, I’ll be looking forward to an intermediate management job with a very clear path to upper level management. It’s pretty great, because as an engineer, I get to jump right into middle management.”

His journey to UNT began with the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, a program where gifted high school students withdraw from high school to enter the world of university education early at UNT. The students move on campus, live in residence halls, and receive mentoring from university faculty as they tackle complex, practical problems within their communities and around the globe. For Sanders, it was a time where he could dive deeper into his studies and explore his interests in STEM.

Following his two years at TAMS, Sanders then chose to apply and enroll to UNT’s mechanical and energy engineering program.

“As a TAMS student, I was offered a scholarship to stay at UNT, and I ultimately chose the mechanical and energy engineering program as I had a strong interest in nuclear power and had been doing research in nuclear particle physics for two years with Professor Duncan Weathers in the Department of Physics,” he said. “I also felt a degree in engineering would be fairly marketable upon graduation, and I feel both my physics background and passion for the field makes me a better engineer.”

The Department of Mechanical and Energy Engineering focuses on preparing students for careers in the ever-growing fields of energy and sustainability, making it a perfect program for students interested in NUPOC.

“Before applying to NUPOC, a student must have a full year of calculus and calculus-based physics under their belt in addition to a competitive GPA and minimum grade of ‘B’ or ‘C’ in all technical courses, depending on the Navy position they’re applying for. For some of the jobs, a student also needs to be a STEM major,” he said.

Sanders graduated with his B.S. in Mechanical and Energy Engineering in spring 2020, a feat proven ever more challenging for seniors today thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Sanders's resilience and determination persevered; he is now on track to obtain his M.S. in Mechanical and Energy Engineering degree, a program he plans to start in fall 2020.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time here at UNT,” he said. “The faculty here are very open to undergraduates and engaging with them outside of the class. They’re friendly, and I felt they were open to investing in me as a person. If I needed something, I could ask for it. It seems like the faculty here are just waiting for students to ask to help out.”