Several senior engineering students have known for years where they will be working after graduation in May. They have lined up four-year contracts pursuing career opportunities directly in their field of study. And while they will be spread around the country, all have the same employer: The U.S. Air Force, one of the most high-tech employers in engineering.

The St. Thomas School of Engineering and the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) have been collaborating for several years to prepare students for their engineering duties once they graduate. In recent years, St. Thomas has seen an influx of ROTC students in the School of Engineering; of the 15 seniors graduating in the ROTC 2017 class, eight are engineering majors.

We sat down with four of them to talk about combining their engineering education and ROTC experience: Molly Amundson and Joe Allison, who will serve as developmental engineers post-graduation; Nicholas Cox, who plans to become a pilot; and Ben Waterfield, a future space operations officer.

Space, the Final Frontier

Waterfield’s career goal is to work on one of the Mars missions. NASA has sent orbiters, landers and rovers to the planet, hoping to pave the way for future human explorers. Waterfield wants to be part of these discoveries.

“Someday, when I’m watching TV and see a Mars landing, I want to say, ‘I was part of that,’” he said.

While he still needs to learn a few more skills to reach that point, his engineering and aerospace courses have given him a good foundation for his future career.

Because he likes to build things, his Mechanical Engineering class was especially fun, he said. In the course, students design parts to attach to a robot so it can complete tasks. He and his teammate won the first round in a friendly competition in which the robot’s arm spun a Lazy Susan in a clockwise direction for several rotations and pushed balls into a hole.

“Every class I take I get interested in a different part of engineering,” Waterfield said.

In addition to academics, Waterfield has been enjoying many aspects of college life. He served as vice president of the Society of American Military Engineers, one of the engineering clubs on campus, and was a member of a rock climbing club. His musical talent as a bass has led him from the university’s Chamber Singers, to the Summit Singers and most recently to the Liturgical Choir. He and Amundson sang with the choir at the 2016 Christmas Eve Mass at the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican.

This summer he’ll be on track to fulfill his dream as he heads to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As a space operations officer, he’ll learn more about GPS, satellites and space surveillance.

In the Pilot’s Seat

Cox also wants to take to the sky, but not into outer space. A mechanical engineering major, he is one of 45 Air Force ROTC cadets selected nationally for the Euro-Nato Joint Jet Pilot Training Program, which prepares pilots for NATO missions. He is set to train at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, after graduation.

Cox was committed to the ROTC program before he selected a school, but said he was drawn to St. Thomas from his home in Rochester, Minnesota, “for the diversity of opportunity.” Through his four years here, he has pursued both his ROTC and engineering passions, while also participating on the men’s swimming and diving team.

“My biggest surprise is how much fun I’ve had while accomplishing these things,” he said.

Cox’s college resume includes maintaining a 4.0 GPA, serving as fall 2016 Detachment 410 cadet wing vice commander, and being selected as the Air Force Association’s 2016 Outstanding ROTC Cadet of the Year from a pool of nearly 11,000 candidates.

But Cox said the secret of his success is the camaraderie with his fellow cadets and engineering students.

“The engineering school is small enough that we get to know our classmates, professors and instructors well. As we progress through our degree requirements, we continue working with the same group of people,” he said.

National-Ranking Cadets

Lt. Col. Charles Musselman, commander of Detachment 410 at St. Thomas, speaks highly of the ROTC students: “Our cadets earned a national ranking of No. 4 out of 145 Air Force ROTC detachments at the end of spring 2016 for both cumulative grade-point average and average physical fitness assessment scores. To be ranked that high in either of those categories is impressive. To be ranked No. 4 in both categories is a phenomenal achievement.”

He credits that ranking to the “partnership with the School of Engineering and the high quality of our engineering students.”

In the past decade, nearly one-third of ROTC students have been engineering majors. Between 2007-17, 54 out of 172 graduates left St. Thomas to serve with an engineering degree – 39 in mechanical and 15 in electrical.

As engineering and ROTC see more crossover, they are working together to enrich the student experience.

For the first time, the School of Engineering is offered a master’s level class this spring, Aviation Technology and Flight Systems, for both graduate and undergraduate students, focusing on the field of manned and unmanned aviation. Students enrolled in the course will be ready to take the Federal Aviation Administration ground school exam – the first step in obtaining a pilot’s license.

Top ROTC Cadet

Another addition this year was a joint award between the School of Engineering and Department of Aerospace Studies for the top ROTC cadet at St. Thomas. The first award was conferred to Allison, a mechanical engineering major from Renville, Minnesota.

Allison said he came to St. Thomas because he found people on campus “approachable.” As a sophomore, he decided to give ROTC a try and enrolled.

“I got to know a bunch of people who are in the program, and they had a lot of good things to say about it,” he said. “I was impressed by their character as well. So I decided to try it out, and I loved it.”

He also fell in love with the engineering program, which was not a major he had intended to pursue.

“I just knew that I liked physics and fixing things. … I liked the Intro to Engineering class, and as I progressed through it, I would find opportunity after opportunity,” he said.

Some of those opportunities included working as a research assistant, a teaching assistant and serving as a mentor for other engineering students. He also presented a paper at the International Mechanical Engineering Exposition in Texas in 2015.

Allison also served as the Detachment 410 cadet wing commander in fall 2016. Starting this June, he will serve as a developmental engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, just an hour north of Los Angeles.

Creative and Inventive Developmental Engineer

When Amundson, who is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was looking at colleges, she knew she wanted to pursue electrical engineering at a Catholic university with an ROTC program.

“It turned out St. Thomas had all three,” she said. “What a dream!”

Her desire to join ROTC stemmed from her grandfather’s military background.

“I had a strong desire to give back to my country,” she said. “I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself.”

Amundson was inspired by the Intro to Engineering course.

“I loved the whole course. It was really hands-on and encouraged me to engage in my inventive side,” she said. “I have found a lot of passion in studying engineering.”

Amundson will also be stationed at the Edwards Air Force Base where she’ll serve as a developmental engineer and member of the 31 Test and Evaluation Squadron, which helps build top-notch operational systems.

“I feel my engineering studies have prepared me with a technically inclined mind that will assist me in being able to make sound decisions as well as offer creative, inventive solutions to problems facing the Air Force,” Amundson said.

She and her fellow engineering cadets will graduate in May, taking the winning combination of engineering and aerospace knowledge with them to an Air Force base to continue working toward their dreams.

Photo above: From the left, mechanical engineering students Nicholas Cox and Joseph Allison, electrical engineering student Molly Amundson and mechanical engineering student Ben Waterfield are in the Air Force ROTC program, as are the cadets behind them.

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