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It's full steam ahead for UMM student

By Philip Drown

Sun Tribune

When Ryan Kalmoe began his college career at UMM, joining the United States Navy was not in the plan. But a series of academic opportunities combined with some coincidental encounters with an elite naval nuclear propulsion program, have together served to put his feet on a significantly different path.

After he graduates from UMM in 2008, Kalmoe, a physics major, will join a very select group of men and women who are trained and groomed to serve in command positions aboard U.S. nuclear powered surface warfare vessels. This opportunity came through Kalmoe's recent acceptance into the Navy's NUPOC program.

NUPOC, which is the Navy's Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate program, is one of the Navy's most elite and challenging opportunities. According to the NUPOC web site, officer candidates for the program are "carefully selected based on a high aptitude for math and science and their abilities to handle responsibility and to work well under pressure."

Officers trained through NUPOC serve in one of four possible capacities: aboard a surface warfare vessel such as an aircraft carrier, aboard a submarine, as a Nuclear Power School Instructor or as a Naval Reactor Engineer.

It was the surface warfare option that first grabbed Kalmoe's attention because of its potential for coupling his interest and education in physics with the leadership background he had developed at UMM.

"[My decision] was largely between surface warfare and sub officer because of that leadership component," said Kalmoe.

While Kalmoe developed a core set of leadership values as a Resident Advisor at UMM, he had also developed a strong interest in applied physics after working on, what was for him, a very different type of academic project.

"One of my professors was using me to construct some ultra sonic remote range finders for another professor to use on glaciers in Sweden to measure snow accumulation over the course of six months," Kalmoe said.

After working on the project, Kalmoe realized that while he liked theoretical physics, he really preferred the hands-on, practical application of the science. Soon afterward, he decided that graduate school was not of particular interest to him and began looking in other directions. One evening, while surfing the internet, Kalmoe stumbled upon the U.S. Navy's NUPOC web site.

"I thought, 'that could be interesting'," Kalmoe said.

Kalmoe did nothing with the information until a few months later when he stumbled upon the web site again. He began checking into it and made several contacts before finally meeting up with Petty Officer First Class Terra Diekmann, who has been his primary contact for the program ever since and has helped him through the long application process.

According to Diekmann, NUPOC maintains a rigorous filtering process that ensures only the top candidates even make it to the application phase.

"We really only accept the best of the best," said Diekmann. "We're looking at engineers, physics majors, the really smart guys."

According to Diekmann, there are several pre-screening categories that recruiters look at to determine a candidate's potential.

"Physical fitness is one thing I look at right away. Another thing I look at is how articulate are they, how professional do they appear. We're looking for professionals. We need people who are going to be stellar."

Grade Point Average is another consideration. Diekmann said if candidates have a high GPA in a difficult engineering or physics degree field, then they know the person is diligent in their studies.

"[Kalmoe's] GPA is absolutely stellar, Diekmann said.

Kalmoe credits the intimate nature of a "small physics department" at UMM with giving him what he needed to succeed in his major and to meet the requirements of NUPOC.

"The major to faculty ratio is extremely low," he said. "I know all my physics professors by name and, in most cases, where they live. We go over to their house for Christmas parties or end of the year parties."

In addition, some faculty made themselves accessible to him as he went through the application process. They helped him work through key technical questions and knowledge required for entry into the program.

Kalmoe credits several other factors of his UMM experience as being extremely valuable in preparing him, including his two and a half years as a Resident Advisor in the dorms. It was through this position of responsibility and authority that Kalmoe was put in real life scenarios where he had to be decisive and grow into the role of a leader.

"I had to take charge in difficult situations that I normally would have shied away from," he said. "It forced me to get out of my isolated world and into the main stream."

Kalmoe, who was not an athlete in high school, also credits having easy access to the Regional Fitness Center as an important factor in his preparation. His automatic student membership and close proximity encouraged him to use the facility to get himself into better shape and meet the physical requirements of the NUPOC program.

"If I had been completely out of shape it would have been much harder to get into the program," Kalmoe said.

Once Kalmoe passed successfully through the pre-screening process, he entered into the challenging application phase, which took around three months and was, according to Kalmoe, something of an adventure.

The process involved a time of intense study and preparation, providing the Navy with detailed information on academics, applying for commission, providing letters of reference, as well as giving personal background information for security clearance checks.

"The most fun I had was the people who were doing the investigation for the security clearance," said Kalmoe. "I got many calls from people saying, 'this guy got here and flashed his federal badge and wanted to talk about you.'"

The Navy does a full background check on anyone seriously considered for entry in the program, including personal references, police records and financial records to find people of the highest caliber.

According to Diekmann, those who are accepted into the NUPOC program must be a "cut above" the rest, due to the sensitive nature of the work - both in its technical complexity as well as its obvious link to national security.

"These are the guys that are working on the Navy's nuclear reactors," said Diekmann.

After much of the preliminary application work, Kalmoe and a small pool of other candidates were then flown out to a US Naval base and given a VIP tour of surface ships and submarines and were able to talk with nuclear-trained officers.

The final phase of the application process was a series of challenging interviews in Washington D.C. Kalmoe was put through several technical interviews with senior design engineers who posed questions designed to probe his knowledge and test his ability to respond with bearing.

This culminated in an interview with Admiral Kirkland Donald, Director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion, who would be the one to make the final determination of acceptance.

"So it's not enough that they rattle your nerves by throwing all sorts of technical questions at you in the morning," said Kalmoe, "then they throw you in front of a powerful admiral in the afternoon."

Kalmoe said his visit with the admiral took no more than 60 seconds, significantly less time than the several interviewees who entered the office before him. Donald then informed him on the spot that he was accepted into the program.

Kalmoe's three month application process was much faster than the average, which typically takes anywhere from six months to one year.

"He was motivated for the program," Diekmann said. "Whenever I would have different information needs he got it for me, so I could push his package through more quickly than the normal package."

While he still has a year to finish his work at UMM, Kalmoe is actively engaged in the NUPOC program and is already earning a monthly stipend. He maintains consistent contact with Diekmann, is keeping up with obligations of the program, and is looking forward to the experiences and adventures to come.