Community editor and columnist Kris Capps is a longtime resident of Fairbanks and Denali Park. Contact her at, in the office at 459-7546 or by cell at 322-6334. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.

Kenneth Piech

Kenneth Piech.

North Pole doesn’t seem a likely place to inspire a young person to work on a nuclear submarine. But that’s exactly what happened to Kenneth Piech, who said community support helped him find his niche.

His niche is expanding now. Piech just received a Fulbright U.S. Student Program award to South Korea, where he will study energy transition and security for the 2020-2021 academic year. He will conduct research at Seoul National University, as part of a project to analyze South Korean energy-mix policy and its implications for Korean unification.

Piech moved to Alaska when he was in first grade. He lived at Eielson Air Force Base, then moved to North Pole during middle school, after his father retired from the U.S. Air Force.

He attended Catholic Schools of Fairbanks, then North Pole middle schools and North Pole High School for four years.

“I was on the swim team at NPHS for four years and was the president of our National Honor Society chapter,” he said. “I also swam with North Pole Aquatic Club from grade school through high school.”

He graduated from North Pole High School in 2010.

In those days, his favorite activities were swimming at Chena Lake with friends, snowboarding at Moose Mountain and cross-country skiing at Birch Hill. He also worked as a lifeguard during high school.

The summer before he went to the U.S. Naval Academy, he did most of his preparatory physical training in the Chena Lakes area, he said, “in the really flat portion of the flood channel basin.”

He had a lot of encouragement from mentors at North Pole High School and specifically mentioned Patrica Behner and Mary Christiansen. That strong support was part of the reason he even considered applying to Annapolis, he said.

He first got interested in the Naval Academy after attending a college fair during high school. After that, he researched all the service academies and ended up requesting a nomination to the Naval Academy from Rep. Don Young. He interviewed locally with former commander Bill Beaudoin and his application was accepted.

“Annapolis was a culture shock in many ways,” he said. “Basic training, sailing, swampy weather, all were very new experiences for me.”

At the Naval Academy, Piech majored in political science, “but all midshipmen are required to take engineering, physics, thermodynamics and other technical classes,” he said.

The studies qualified him to pursue a position in submarines, something he had no interest in earlier.

“I didn’t like the idea of confined spaces underwater,” he said. “But I experienced submarine life during a summer training event, which showed me that the life of a submarine officer is very challenging but also very rewarding.”

He became a nuclear submarine officer.

He hadn’t thought of it before, but now realizes his choice of military service was influenced by his father’s service in the Air Force and his grandfather’s service in the Navy.

Piech graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2014 and graduated from Georgetown University in 2015. He recently completed his service with the U.S. Navy.

“My ending up at USNA was the result of a series of people believing in and encouraging me,” he said. “I had no idea I would be a nuclear submarine officer during high school, but I’m grateful for the opportunities I was afforded by my community, grateful for how things turned out, and very excited to start a new chapter researching energy security in South Korea.”

The Fulbright program is a prestigious one. Fulbright recipients are selected in an open, merit-based competition that considers leadership potential, academic and/or professional achievement and record of service. The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to forge lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, counter misunderstandings, and help people and nations work together toward common goals

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.