The Achiever:
How Education Took One Sailor From The Streets To The Nuclear Program

Thomas Schwab; Petty Officer Third Class, Electronics Technician Nuclear. This latest episode of Faces of the Fleet features a young man who, even before joining the Navy, seemed capable of navigating through life’s unrelenting and undeserved hardships. Surrounded by familial turmoil, weathered by the plight of homelessness, and faced with a five-year gap in his education, Thomas Schwab truly represents what it means to overcome obstacles.

HOMELIFE IN TURMOIL

 

Born and raised in St. George, Utah, Thomas found himself in a poor home lacking any healthy foundation. His parents’ marriage was blighted by arguments which left a cloud over the Schwab residence. Thomas’ father struggled with mental health issues while his mother fought addiction. In fifth grade, Thomas’ world was turned upside down when he was pulled out of school by his father, who believed Thomas was too smart for education.

“I missed fifth to ninth grade because my dad thought school wouldn’t help me,” Thomas remarked. 

A self-confessed textbook connoisseur, Thomas immersed himself in literature and academics during those five years away from school. Though he wasn’t in school, a fire inside told him that  education would be his only ticket out of the dysfunctional world he was living in.

His family’s financial situation worsened as he grew older, especially after the economic crash of 2008. His father couldn’t find consistent work and his mother was fired from her job. The family faced evictions due to their financial struggles and had to endure deteriorating living conditions. But this was only the beginning.  

Thomas’ father suffered from increasingly damaging mental health issues for which he refused treatment. Eventually, Thomas’ parents separated and he found himself heading to Salt Lake City in search of a new life with his mother.

A NEW LIFE IN SALT LAKE CITY

Once he moved to Salt Lake City, Thomas enrolled in Murray High School, a place which would shape his future. Having missed fifth through ninth grade, Thomas had never learned algebra. In fact, the most complex math he had learned was basic multiplication, division, addition and subtraction. He had missed many of the basic principles of English, including grammatical and syntactical rules.

Joining Murray High School his sophomore year, Thomas had to quickly fill the massive gap of knowledge he had missed during his time away from school. Unwilling to fold under the immense pressure of his situation, Thomas wholeheartedly committed himself to his studies. He spent countless hours in the library before and after school and worked weekends to make sure he caught up. There was no way he was going to squander the chance he’d finally been given at an education. Within a few months, Thomas had become a 4.0 student, his life progressing in the right direction. Then, life bit him hard.

THE UNTHINKABLE

During his junior year, Thomas and his mother encountered a series of setbacks which would eventually transform his world. His mother’s car was stolen, meaning she couldn’t go to work. They could no longer afford to rent the house they had been living in. Soon, they were evicted and became homeless. 

His mother and his stepfather went to live as caretakers for a family member several hours south of Salt Lake City, meaning Thomas would have to leave Murray High. Unwilling to give up on his education and the close circle of friends he’d made, Thomas made the gut-wrenching decision to stay in Salt Lake City. For almost twelve months, Thomas was homeless as he went to school by day and worked an evening job at a fast food restaurant.

Most people Thomas interacted with were unaware of his homelessness. He continued to excel in his academic endeavors despite the harsh realities of living on the streets. With a will to secure a future for himself and escape poverty, Thomas continued to read and study well beyond the hours of any normal student. Thomas eventually graduated number one in his class, never scoring below an “A”; a model valedictorian. During his senior year, he received help from the Salt Lake County Milestone Transitional Living Program. The program offered Thomas access to safe housing, stable employment and connections to ongoing support and resources.

During this time, he decided to enlist in the United States Navy in hopes of escaping Utah to pursue a life of stability. 

“It seemed to be the logical choice. It was the choice that would provide a free education while also offering valuable work experience,” Thomas explained. 

Thomas went down to the recruiting office and took the ASVAB. He scored extremely well, granting him access to a job opportunity that had piqued his interest. Nuclear physics had always been a passion of Thomas’, so when his recruiter offered him the chance to go to Navy Nuclear Power School, he jumped at the opportunity. 

“I’ve always been fascinated by it, so I was ecstatic to learn that I was going to be able to. It was my time to write a new chapter and put all of the negativity behind me. I was nervous, but I knew it was going to be an adventure,” Thomas said.

A NUCLEAR LIFE

After Thomas graduated high school, he left for Boot Camp on June 19, 2018. From there, he attended the prestigious Nuclear Field “A” School in Goose Creek, South Carolina where he was became an Electronics Technician Nuclear (ETN), advancing to the rank of Third Class Petty Officer. Even though the attrition rate is high, Thomas thrived in the intense academic atmosphere. Sailors in nuclear ratings account for just 3% of the enlisted Navy. 

“It’s not an easy environment to be in. You are constantly solving complex problems and equations that will test even the best mathematicians. I loved every minute of it because it was an extension of my love of learning,” Thomas explained.

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“A” School was eye-opening to Thomas because it introduced him to men and women from all different backgrounds. It became abundantly clear that the Navy was a meritocracy where it didn’t matter where you came from; it rewarded the quality of your work. 

In June 2019, Thomas graduated top of his class from Nuclear Field “A” School. Standing tall in his white uniform alongside his Navy brothers and sisters, Thomas was able to pause for a moment and remember how far he’d come in a just a few, short years. 

“Education is the greatest equalizer in our world. You can’t have a functioning society without it,” Thomas said. 

Thomas isn’t ashamed of his past—looking back on the years spent out of school, or sitting in the freezing rain clutching his textbooks, he knows that it has all made him stronger.  Today, he’s using his accomplishments to help inspire his family. While his mother still struggles with self-sufficiency, she is proud of Thomas’ achievements. Thomas has even made strides to repair the relationship with his father, who has overcome his mental health issues. Thomas is living proof that, no matter how dire your economic situation might be, there’s always a ray of hope.

“If you study and you work hard, you can achieve anything you want in life,” Thomas adds. 

Thomas now finds himself continuing his education at Nuclear Power School. Upon graduation, he will continue training with twenty-four weeks of instruction at the Nuclear Power Training Unit (NPTU). This training involves simulated maintenance of nuclear reactor plans. After that, he’ll serve aboard a submarine, powering the most complex nuclear reactor systems in the Navy.

WHAT IS AN ELECTRONICS TECHNICIAN?

Nuclear Electronics Technicians operate and perform maintenance on the electronic systems that make the nuclear reactor on Navy ships run. From submarines to aircraft carriers, these Sailors calibrate the actual nuclear control rods to generate power aboard ships. After your training at Nuclear Power & Prototype School, you’ll be part of a watch team that enables the fission process, generating steam for propulsion. Few can say they get hands-on experience in a nuclear power plant just three years out of high school—you’re one of them.

Enlisted Sailors working in nuclear operations will  have the opportunity to work at sea or ashore. Their assignment could also place them in an intense, fast-paced environment aboard a nuclear-powered submarine or aircraft carrier.

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