For graduates of NAU’s geology program, landing a job at Pioneer Natural Resources Company feels a bit like returning to old stomping grounds.

The Texas-based independent oil and gas company actively recruits geology interns from the university and employs numerous NAU alums. In fact, in every decade since the 1970s, Pioneer has counted NAU graduates among its staff of geoscientists.

The relationship was initiated by David Sanders, retiring corporate geoscience director at Pioneer and a two-time NAU alum. When Sanders was hired at Pioneer, he was given the task of building a geoscience department that could compete with the best in the industry. Sanders did just that, growing the geoscience staff from two employees to its current size of 150, 15 of whom are NAU graduates.

Sanders attributes much of the program’s success to the leadership of Chris Cheatwood, executive vice president for business development and geoscience, and Scott Sheffield, CEO and chairman of the board. “At one point we had 100 percent of our staff with over 15 years of experience,” Sanders said. “Scott and Chris supported the decision to focus on supporting an entry-level workforce to complement our seasoned staff. That’s when the university partnership began.”

Under Sander’s leadership, the company focused their recruiting efforts on schools with proven track records. Sanders praised NAU students for “perfectly fitting in with the Pioneer culture and philosophy.” The students made such an impression on the company that in 2011 the geology program received a $600,000 contribution from Pioneer, the largest gift ever to the program.

Pioneer strengthened its commitment to NAU this year, pledging an additional $450,000 to support graduate research and education in stratigraphy, a branch of geology that is significant to natural resource exploration and production companies like Pioneer.

“NAU is a textbook example of why partnerships work,” explained Sanders. “NAU geologists have Disneyland in their back yard—the Grand Canyon, Colorado Plateau and the San Francisco volcanic field. Students are able to go out to the field and touch, taste and sleep with rocks. Such experiences produce quality thinkers who contribute at a high level at Pioneer.”

In recognition of the relationship Sanders built with the geology department, Pioneer is also funding $100,000 to establish the David E. Sanders Award at NAU, an endowment to support graduate research assistantships in geology.

“David dedicated his whole career to people,” said Louis Goldstein, vice president of corporate geoscience at Pioneer. “He found the right people, nurtured them and created a great company culture. Through this award, David’s legacy and the relationships he built will live on in the people and those to come through the foundation at NAU.”