Native American and Alaska Native students are in a college-going and completion crisis.
Research shows the national rate of all students going to college within six months of graduation after high school is 70%. For Native American and Alaska Native students, those numbers are closer to 20%.
The American Indian College Fund knows that education improves the lives of individuals, their families, and entire communities, yet scholarships are not enough for student success. It needed to create a college-going culture with prospective students to ensure the transition to college and support them while in college. Thanks to a $2.5 million grant renewal for 36 months from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the College Fund will continue its work to increase college access and success through the College Fund’s Native Pathways to College Program .
The College Fund’s Pathways program is divided into four components working with students. The High School Admissions Pathway program works to increase the college-going rate of Native Pathways participants closer to the national college going rate. The College Bridge Pathway works to bring Tribal College and Universities (TCUs) and area high schools together to help prepare students for the academic and social environments at college. The Tribal College Transfer Pathway aims to increase the retention rate of TCU students, increase the number of TCU graduates, and increase the number TCU graduates transferring to a four-year institution. The Student Success Pathway will support successful transition and increase retention of students who transition into a new institution of higher education.
The program will continue its work in broadening a college culture and college completion at more schools across the nation, with the goal of working with 90 reservation-based high schools and 30 TCUs in 11 states, impacting approximately 16,000 students. The College Fund will provide training materials and will work with students, staff, and community members on college access workshops, coaching, and events.
Cheryl Crazy Bull, President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, said, “The College Fund and the Andrew Mellon Foundation share a vision of equity that emerges when young people see themselves as having an education that leads to a better life. Engaged, active citizenship rooted in Native identity is our goal. We know that all of society benefits from healthy communities, diverse knowledge, and improved economies. We are pleased that the Andrew. W. Mellon Foundation looks beyond the academy to the future of our society in our youth.”
About the American Indian College Fund
Founded in 1989, the American Indian College Fund has been the nation’s largest charity supporting Native higher education for 30 years. The College Fund believes “Education is the answer” and provided 5,896 scholarships last year totaling $7.65 million to American Indian students, with more than 131,000 scholarships and community support totaling over $200 million since its inception. The College Fund also supports a variety of academic and support programs at the nation’s 35 accredited tribal colleges and universities, which are located on or near Indian reservations, ensuring students have the tools to graduate and succeed in their careers. The College Fund consistently receives top ratings from independent charity evaluators and is one of the nation’s top 100 charities named to the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. For more information about the American Indian College Fund, please visit collegefund.org .
Dr. Joseph Castro was named Wednesday as the new chancellor of the California State University system, becoming the first Mexican-American and native Californian to lead the nation’s largest four-year public university system.
CSU’s Board of Trustees announced the appointment of Castro, who is currently president of CSU Fresno, on the final day of its meeting Wednesday.
He will replace Chancellor Timothy White, who has held the post since 2012. White had announced he would retire in June but delayed stepping down to help steer the 23-campus system through the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am truly grateful for and excited about this unique and wonderful opportunity, and I look forward to working with the talented faculty, staff and presidents of the 23 campuses as well the Board of Trustees and executives and staff at the Chancellor’s Office to further increase achievement for our 482,000 students,” Castro said in a press release.
Before becoming president of Fresno State, Castro previously served the University of California (UC) in several roles, including the Vice Chancellor of Student Academic Affairs and as a professor of Family and Community Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
He attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in political science and then later obtained his Ph.D. from Stanford University.
Castro will begin his new job in January, with an annual salary of $625,000.
Lillian Kimbell, chairwoman of the board of trustees, called Castro a “passionate and effective advocate” for students, the campus and the CSU system.
“He is a leader who inspires greatness in students, faculty and in the broader community. He is the right leader for the California State University in our current circumstance and for our future,” she said in a statement.
Continue on to ABC 7 News to read the complete article.
Zigzag. That’s the advice Georgia Sandoval, a high-performance architect at Intel, has for STEM students.
“You think there’s only one path for you and if you fail, everything’s going to fall apart,” recalls Sandoval, 28. That’s when you learn to zigzag.
Sandoval bases that insight on her own story. “If you don’t get an internship, then try for a research opportunity,” she says. “If one path doesn’t work, try another until you get where you want to be. Nobody has a linear path in life.”
In high school in Tuba City, Arizona, Sandoval was often the only girl in math classes. Because she was shy, she never applied for extracurricular programs. “It was a lack of confidence,” she explains. “I didn’t think I’d get in any, so why bother?”
Things didn’t click until she was a junior at Arizona State University and took a coding class. “I really loved it,” she says. A year later, she graduated with a degree in computational mathematics.
Today, after stints at Boeing and Raytheon, she’s at Intel helping create the world’s first exascale computer. Able to perform a quintillion floating-point computations per second, this new breed of ultra-supercomputer will help scientists model climate change, map the brain, and conduct advanced physics research.
Sandoval’s job involves making performance projections, a role that entails far more than crunching numbers. “We have brainstorming meetings throughout the day on how we’re going to solve the next problem,” she says, and collaborates with scientists from multiple national labs, who send her bundles of their code to evaluate.
Her Navajo heritage has guided and strengthened Sandoval along her path, which has not always been easy. She was single mother in college who had to work her way from tribal college to community college and finally to Arizona State University. Being a role model for her child inspired her to finish her college degree.
“My parents continue to say, remember who you are, and remember who your people are, so you’re grounded,” says Sandoval.
She has a special fondness for her masani (her mother’s mother) who told her, “The way to succeed in this new world of technology is to use your brain, study, and always walk on dirt to remember where you came from.” Sandoval offers that advice to today’s students: “Find the balance between culture and modern society, without sacrificing your core identity.” Above all, she wants students to remember they’re not alone. “In college I was pushed to network, even when I didn’t want to,” she recalls. “But I made sure to be myself. People can see when you’re faking it. Explore new areas — there are so many opportunities out there.”
Succeeding in college networking was a big step from her days as a shy high school student. She wishes that back then she had learned an important lesson. “It is okay to admit you need help, to admit you’re scared,” she explains. “The most important thing is to talk to someone, to ask for help — to figure out what you want and build your confidence.”
Georgia Sandoval has come a long way. “I was always the quiet girl in the corner,” she says. “I’m far from that now.”
(Jacksonville, FL) Ruben Rodriguez, a former firefighter for both the City of Miami Fire & Rescue and the Tallahassee Fire Department, is currently the Emergency Recovery Coordinator for Paul Davis of Tallahassee.
He also is active in the Business Development end of the company which involves creating and maintaining client relationships. Ruben came aboard the Paul Davis team in January of 2019 and explains how much he enjoys the work.
“For me, this was just a continuation of the work firefighters do, in that we are all about serving others and helping people in their time of need. It feels great to offer some help and solace to someone who is overwhelmed from a disaster,” Ruben shared.
The formal description of Ruben’s job and all ERC’s at Paul Davis is coordinator of who and what is needed for the recovery for people, communities, and businesses after a disaster, particularly fires.
“People often experience numbness, shock, fear and difficulty focusing during these situations and, as with any trauma, they shouldn’t be making important decisions during this period,” explained Ruben. “That’s where we come in. We excel in coordination among all the players; adjustors and insurance carriers, and mitigation workers and gently guide shocked property owners through the stressful process. ERC’s from Paul Davis are trained and have the knowledge needed to protect the point of origin in a fire loss for example. This is important because sometimes insurance companies want to perform an origin and cause investigation. One of my duties would be to make an accurate assessment of what needs to be done to secure the scene. This eliminates a crucial task for the fire victim at that awful time.
Among the rewards Ruben feels in his job is working with civic causes and fire prevention programs, one of which involves the Tallahassee Paul Davis team helping to assist in installations of smoke detectors for the needy.
For more than 50 years, Paul Davis Restorations Inc. has restored residential and commercial properties damaged by fire, water, mold, storms, and disasters. Paul Davis is a one-stop shop for disaster damage and restoration and has more than 300 independently owned franchises in the United States and Canada. The professionals at Paul Davis are certified in emergency restoration, reconstruction, and remodeling. For more information, visit the company website at www.pauldavis.com
In the study, HBR reported how an increase in employee curiosity led to a dramatic increase in company-wide creativity; how curiosity leads to empathy, which leads to reduced conflict among team members; and how “Google identifies naturally curious people through interview questions such as these: ‘Have you ever found yourself unable to stop learning something you’ve never encountered before? Why? What kept you persistent?’”
Whether we realize it or not, curiosity is one of the most appealing qualities . . . in a friend, an employee, a boss, or a leader.
Curiosity leads to improved problem-solving—in just about every capacity (logistically, emotionally, financially, etc.).
As the HBR study goes on to explain, “To assess curiosity, employers can also ask candidates about their interests outside of work. Reading books unrelated to one’s own field and exploring questions just for the sake of knowing the answers are indications of curiosity.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was starting my company, originally focused exclusively on female athletes and women’s sports, a number of people told me, “There’s no money in women’s sports.” And the reason I pressed on regardless was that I was curious. “Is that true? If it is true, why? And shouldn’t we change that?” Those questions and my curiosity started the Stanton & Company journey (thank goodness!).
And then a few years ago, when I decided I wanted to write a book about femininity, I was curious about my behaviors, feelings, and ideas—was I experiencing something unique, or were my feelings and human responses part of a larger societal reality? (The answer turned out to be the latter.)
Irma Olguin, the tech CEO of Geekwise Academy, is not your typical CEO. Though she lives in California, where many business owners have taken to big cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, Olguin runs her business in Fresno, California, one of the poorest cities in the United States.
She spends her workdays with pink hair, normally wearing T-shirts and jeans, and depended on recycling cans and bottles to afford the transportation fee to the University of Toledo, where she was the first person in her family to earn her degree.
Through her studies, Olguin found her passion for computer science and engineering, a field that is predominately male. Following her graduation in 2004, Olguin had several opportunities to work various tech jobs near her school but ultimately decided to return to Fresno in an attempt to boost the economy. While working with Fresno school districts in both teaching and performing computer programming work, Olguin teamed up with property lawyer Jake Sobreal in 2012. Both being Fresno natives, Olguin and Sobreal decided it was time to teach the natives of their hometown the skills they would need to boost their economy and to better provide for themselves.
In 2013, Geekwise Academy was born, a crash course learning center for coding, technology, and business skills. The academy has given people with a wide variety of backgrounds the inspiration and tools needed to jump back into the workforce. Graduates of the Geekwise Academy have included military veterans, newly released prisoners, and even make up 25% of Shift3 Technologies’ staff.
With the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, Olguin decided to defy the expectations of a potential crashing economy and use the situation to her advantage. In March of 2020, Geekwise Academy went digital where the company received double their usual clientele, despite having opened more locations two years before. Despite the pandemic, Olguin and Sobreal are still working toward opening new locations, despite uncertain real estate numbers.
Given their estimated $27 million in capital backing, $20 million in revenue, and her past of consistently defeating the odds, Olguin’s desire to grow her company, stimulate the economy, and help those desiring a better career, are looking positive. Of her company, Olguin says, “We’ve found a fundamentally different way to rebuild American cities, especially at a time when folks are looking around and saying, ‘What do we do with our economy?’ We think we have the answer to that.”
The sun-drenched skies, sculpted rock formations and Saguaro cactus of the high desert are part of the landscape that Andrea Garcia calls home. Garcia, a native of Phoenix, Arizona, is proud of her Hispanic heritage and feels fortunate to be able to crossover the language barrier from English to Spanish and collaborate in two languages as a bilingual accountant.
“So many people within the Hispanic community appreciate someone who can speak Spanish in everyday business interactions,” said Garcia. “Especially when it comes to tax accounting. It truly makes everyone feel comfortable and at home when you can convey the message in their own language.”
Garcia, an entrepreneur and founder of her own accounting firm AG Tax and Accounting as well as an accountant with Nahrwold Associates in Phoenix, received a wealth of opportunity that opened many doors for her as a Hispanic woman in a male-dominated profession like accounting.
“I landed a part-time administrative job with Nahrwold Associates, a small accounting firm, while still in college,” reminisced Garcia, 27. “The owner, Allen Nahrwold, noted my interest in business and finance. He became my mentor in the field of tax accounting. Many employees were part-time college students, such as me, who left the firm and moved on to other jobs. I ultimately stayed and learned the accounting business from the ground up. I have never found that being a woman or Hispanic has been an issue – if anything it has been an asset since I speak Spanish as well as English. That is an area where many young Hispanic women could find themselves in a career, and truly excel rapidly by being able to speak both languages.”
Now into several months of being a business owner, Garcia has discovered the freedom of creating her own business identity while remaining a Nahrwold employee.
“This is the best of both worlds,” said Garcia, “being able to work for myself and Nahrwold. I am building a great network based off referrals and additional business contacts provided by Nahrwold. It is amazing how the clients and referrals come when people discover you are starting a new business.”
When contemplating college following high school graduation, Garcia’s exemplary grades led to a wealth of scholarship opportunities including several that she received from the Accounting and Financial Women’s Alliance (AFWA), an educational and professional association for women in the field of finance and accounting, headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky. Garcia has since completed a master’s degree in accounting and plans to complete the two phases of the CPA exam by the end of the year.
“The AFWA scholarships were so beneficial to my college success,” said Garcia. “The whole organization has been a wonderful education and networking experience. I joined our local AFWA chapter (East Mesa and Phoenix Chapters) shortly after finishing college. Now I am the president of East Mesa and enjoying every minute of it. It is a great way to network, make friends in your profession, create revenue streams, and get involved in the community. I have also served for several years on the national AFWA Board of Directors, and that has been a wonderful experience.”
Garcia’s advice to young women interested in pursuing a profession as an accountant or in the field finance includes becoming an intern for valuable experience and finding a mentor to guide you down the career path of choice. She also believes that it is important to join a professional organization while still attending college, like the AFWA, that offers a student membership and scholarship opportunities.
“Working as an intern in a position is a wonderful chance to discover if accounting or finance is the career path you want to follow,” said Garcia. “It is even more beneficial to find a mentor to help you learn the ropes and give you advice along the way, help develop skills, and create your business acumen. It is also important to join a professional organization, like the AFWA, to develop soft skills, networking, and leadership skills. Women are underrepresented in the field of finance and accounting. There are so many opportunities available it just takes making yourself aware, willing to step out of your comfort zone and into a role where you can learn, lead, excel and grow in your business and interpersonal skills.”
By Kevin Singer, Matthew J. Mayhew, Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Laura S. Dahl
Michael Resendez is a rising senior at the University of Houston majoring in finance. “The University has a 32 percent Latinx student population overall, but this isn’t true of college of business,” he remarks.
“It’s daunting to go into business,” Michael continues. “You see a lot of investment banks and accounting firms pushing for diversity, but you don’t really see yourself there. When you think of business, you think of Mark Zuckerburg, Jeff Bezos, you know, insert a White person’s name. Then you think about, what does my dad do? What do people in my community do? There’s discomfort [seeking a business degree] in the Latinx community because of a lack of familiarity,” he explains.
What Michael is describing can be confirmed by findings from our study: Business schools aren’t successfully drawing Latinx college students after they’ve started college.
In partnership with the Interfaith Youth Core, North Carolina State, and Ohio State University, our study, IDEALS, followed students from over 120 colleges and universities through four years of college (2015–2019). As part of our focus on how students navigate richly diverse college environments, we asked students at the beginning of their first year of college, and again at the end of their fourth year, about their planned academic major.
We discovered that of the roughly 50 percent of Latinx students that changed their major during college, none of them changed their major to business. Furthermore, of the 16 percent of Latinx students who entered college undecided about their major, only one student went on to choose a major in business.
Latinx students, and especially those who are first in their families to go to college (i.e. first generation), may not feel that majoring in business is a viable option for them. Michael Resendez admitted he was fortunate to be a third-generation college student preceded by his father and grandfather, as well as an aunt who works as an accountant. Their experience familiarized him with the different majors he could pursue before he stepped foot on campus.
First-generation Latinx students, Michael explained, are more likely to remain undecided for as long as they can, or funnel into majors that are more common among their peers like those in the liberal arts or education. Making the jump into business is a risk they may not be comfortable taking, especially if no one in their family can relate to their interests or provide support. Our study confirms that of the Latinx students who entered college undecided, the majority (61
percent) eventually chose to enter the social sciences and education, while the majority of those who changed majors (53 percent) moved to social science, education, or the humanities.
Michael insists that colleges and universities have work to do. “It should be normalized for Latinx students to be introduced to all the majors and schools available to them. It shouldn’t take three generations to see that there are opportunities in college to learn about money management and lucrative career opportunities that would service Latinx students and their communities,” he said.
Exposing Latinx students to opportunities to study business is just one part of the equation. An important question remains: Will business schools be welcoming places for them?
One glaring issue that business schools must address is the lack of Latinx representation in their full-time faculty. As of 2016, only 2.6 percent of full-time faculty at America’s business schools were Hispanic, while 75 percent were white. This percentage isn’t growing; from 2013 to 2017, the number of Hispanic tenured faculty only rose by two-thirds of a percent. In June, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria issued an apology for the lack of minority representation in their faculty.
“Ultimately, proliferating diversity among faculty is another way to generate more diverse student populations, who eventually lead organizations. Exposure to these different backgrounds of teachers opens up the minds of all students,” writes Nunzio Quacquarelli, founder and CEO of Qs, an online resource hub for aspiring business students.
However, even if a business school is perceived to be welcoming, Latinx students may feel more comfortable in other majors where they feel their accomplishments are merit-based, rather than lauded because of their minority status. “I absolutely sympathize with any Latino who treads a fine line between wanting their accomplishments to be 100 percent merit-based with no association as a diversity candidate versus wanting to be proud of their identity and community,” writes Harvard Business School student Karla Mendez. She encourages Latinx students entering business schools to embrace their Latinx identity and understand how it makes them unique in the workforce. She notes that Latinx business school groups are helpful in this regard.
Michael Resendez is part of the Hispanic Business Student Association at the University of Houston, a student organization providing Latinx students with community support and resources to excel in business school and beyond. “Cultivating a familia within a university, a safe space to succeed, ask questions, learn how to do college together, and learn how to network is critical,” Michael explained. “I’ve seen DACA and first-generation Latinx students in our group pass the CPA, get full-time job offers, and gain acceptance into Masters programs.” What is most exciting for Michael, however, is seeing these students come back and reconnect with the group in order to help others succeed.
Still, Michael foresees new hurdles for Latinx students. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a slew of business internship offers being rescinded, on top of hiring freezes and massive job losses in the business sector. “The Latinx community is risk averse; they tend to pursue what is safe and what they know will support themselves and their families,” Michael explained, which he believes could make Latinx students apprehensive about pursuing a business major in the short-term. Furthermore, Michael believes that students are less convinced they need a degree in business to reach their goals. “In order to accomplish great feats in business, you don’t have to be a business major, and I think a lot of people are learning that,” he said.
Latinx college students are growing at a rapid pace, reaching a record high in 2017, according to Pew Research. Soon, it is estimated that one-fifth of college students will be Latinx, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Business schools should consider if they are prepared to serve this growing population, and if there are clear pathways available to Latinx
students who entered college undecided on their major, or Latinx students desiring to change their major to business.
Michael sees a bright future for Latinx students in business schools. “Once you educate Latinx students and make them feel comfortable in business school spaces, you’re going to see their attraction toward those spaces increase too. These students come from hard-working families. They are going to be successful and have a long-spanning career.”
Kevin Singer (@kevinsinger0) is a PhD student in higher education at North Carolina State University and a research associate for IDEALS.
Dr. Matthew J. Mayhew (@MattJMayhewPhD) is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher professor of educational administration at Ohio State University and co-principal investigator of IDEALS.
Dr. Alyssa N. Rockenbach is the alumni distinguished graduate professor of higher education at North Carolina State University and co-principal investigator of IDEALS.
Dr. Laura S. Dahl is an assistant professor of education at North Dakota State University.
Len Necefer, Ph.D, is fearless in his pursuit of change in the Navajo Nation. He is changing the national dialogue around issues facing Indian Country by making sure American Indian voices are heard and engaged.
Necefer carefully chose each step he took as he pursued one degree after another, all so that one day he could do exactly what he does today—find the balance of competing uses of our public lands and natural resources and the interests of Native communities and teach others how to do the same.
Finding his voice was a focus through his entire academic journey, which started at the University of Kansas and was ultimately completed by achieving his doctorate in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.
Frustrated and saddened by the environmental destruction and mismanagement occurring in Indian Country, Necefer decided to dedicate his career to bringing sustainable environmental practices to the Navajo Nation. This work began at the University of Kansas, where he developed his own community recycling program in coordination with the dean, University of Kansas Recycling, and the Coca-Cola Company. In just two years, the program was responsible for diverting more than 9,000 pounds of recyclable materials from landfills.
It was this experience that inspired Necefer to pursue his Ph.D., to further hone his talent for creative problem solving in the environmental sector. Like many Native students, academic attainment is not possible without help. Necefer’s help came from the American Indian College Fund, an organization Necefer continues to work with today in his role as an organization Ambassador. The College Fund’s support was critical in Necefer’s success, as the transition to Carnegie Melon, where he completed his doctorate, was difficult—he was the only Native student among more than 5,000 graduate students. But Necefer did not let his circumstances defeat him, instead he used them as motivation.
Following the completion of his Ph.D., Necefer chose a position with the Office of Indian Energy in the Department of Energy, working with almost 300 tribes to plan and fund more than 40 renewable resource projects for development,
“Helping tribes actualize their vision of what they want their future to be was incredibly fulfilling,” said Necefer, whose initial efforts were directed at finding the most sustainable and cost-effective ways to provide energy to people on reservations.
However, he soon realized that perhaps the most innovative and useful aspect of his project involved determining how to incorporate traditional Native values into environmental planning. He began interviewing tribal members on the Navajo Reservation, and based on their responses, developed an interface that allowed anyone from the tribe to determine the environmental impacts of various methods of energy development, including wind and solar.
Perhaps most importantly, it allowed Navajo people to become engaged with the issues and to have a voice in the decision-making process regarding environmental issues affecting their communities. “It was a really good learning experience for me just to have that engagement with folks,” said Necefer. “I saw a lot of frustration from people. Just being asked gave them hope.”
His next career move was to start his own company, NativesOutdoors. The aim of this company is to develop outdoor gear with indigenous artists and athletes and give a voice to native people in the intersection of the management of public lands and outdoor recreation. While continuing to build his company, Necefer is also an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. This position affords him the opportunity to both teach a new generation of people about the things most important to him—indigenous peoples and environmental issues impacting their communities—as well as engage in public policy. In his spare time, Necefer is an avid outdoor adventurer using rock/ice climbing, high altitude and ski mountaineering, and bikepacking to convey stories focused on environmental activism and indigenous history. These adventures are documented through his writing and photography, which has been featured in the Alpinist, Outside Magazine, the Climbing Zine, BESIDE Magazine, Patagonia’s the Cleanest Line, and various film festivals.
About Len Necefer
Len Necefer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, with joint appointments with the American Indian Studies program & the Udall Center for Public Policy. In addition, he is the founder & CEO of Colorado-based outdoor apparel company NativesOutdoors. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Kansas & a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy. Previously he worked at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio on supersonic vehicle research and most recently worked for the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs supporting tribes realize their energy futures through research and grant making. His research focuses on the intersection of indigenous people and natural resource management policy. This has included work from energy and water issues in the lower 48 and Alaska to outdoor recreation management policy.
Aaron Yazzie continues to set his sights higher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. With a Diné (Navajo) background, he earned his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University, and as a Mechanical Engineer with a focus on Sample Acquisition and Handling at NASA, Yazzie designs mechanisms for acquiring geological samples from other planets.
Hispanic Network Magazine had a chance to talk with Yazzie about his Native American background and how it influenced his journey to NASA.
HNM: Can you tell us about your background and journey to becoming a mechanical engineer at NASA?
Yazzie: I was born in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. I was born to parents who were 1st generation college students in their families—families that have had traditional Diné upbringings. Their first language was Dinébizaad (Navajo Language), their first known homes were our traditional Diné Hooghan (Navajo Hogan Houses/Dwellings). They learned the English language in elementary school, where they were the first generation in their family forced to attend school by the US government. From that unique beginning, and from that early-childhood culture shock and trauma, both my mother and father made it through an educational system rigged against them, graduated high school, and went to college—the first in their families. My mother earned her degree in education—she became a high school level math teacher. And my father received a degree in civil engineering—he became an engineer for the Arizona Department of Transportation. Both of them have been pioneers of Indigenous achievement in higher education and STEM careers. They may not be known and recognized by the larger Native community as STEM pioneers, but they are certainly my inspiration and the trailblazers to my career at NASA.
I grew up in Holbrook, AZ, a small border town to the Navajo Reservation. My brothers and I grew up, and attended school in the Holbrook School District, where we all graduated proud “Holbrook Roadrunners.” Growing up, I didn’t have any examples or role models who went to prestigious private schools or went on to work at places like NASA. I knew I wanted to transcend the expectations of my family and my hometown, which is why I always strove for the highest grades in school, participated in all the school leadership positions and sought out all the high school summer enrichment programs. These are the programs that ended up transforming me from a self-doubting minority student into a solid college applicant with some awareness of my self-worth. They gave me the confidence to apply to, and to eventually be accepted to, Stanford University—an event that changed the course of my life.
Making the transition from small-town public school to prestigious private college was a big challenge. Nothing about my time at Stanford was easy, whether it was the rigorous academics or the constant financial struggle. Not to mention being separated from a tight-knit home community like the Navajo community for the first time. I was forced to learn quickly how to adapt, persevere, and overcome many challenges during my time at Stanford. Thankfully, there was a supportive community of BIPOC students who were going through the same challenges as I was. We all supported each other and made it through—not only graduating, but each of us moving on to do incredible things.
I was hired by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory mid-way through my senior year at Stanford. I was heavily involved with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society from the time that I was a high school freshman. I grew from there to be president of my high school AISES chapter, then became the Stanford AISES chapter president, and then National AISES Region 2 Student Representative. Along the way I received a 4-year scholarship from AISES to attend Stanford, and while there, I received 2 NASA internships through AISES. One placed me at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and one at NASA Glenn Research Center. By the time I was ready to look for a job, AISES had helped give me a college education, 2 NASA internships, and a job opportunity with one of the most prestigious engineering institutions in the world. I met the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory recruiter at the AISES National Conference in 2007. From that interaction, I received an on-lab interview, and was hired soon after. I have been working as a Mechanical Engineer at NASA JPL for 12 years and counting.
HNM: Tell us about your significant milestone – when NASA’s InSight lander touched the surface of Mars. What were you feeling, and how was that experience?
Yazzie: NASA InSight was the first mission I worked on where I was tasked with leading the design and delivery of space flight hardware. Up until this point in my career, I supported missions as a test engineer or support engineer. When InSight successfully launched into space, it was the first time something I designed—something I touched with my own hands—went into space. And when it landed on Mars, it was the first time I sent something to another planet. I was completely thrilled, and overwhelmed with emotions when I saw the first set of pictures of my hardware on Mars. Considering where I came from, this achievement was monumental! Being an engineer from a remarkably underrepresented community in STEM fields, it is a constant struggle to overcome imposter syndrome. I did not think I was a thriving or even adequate engineer at NASA. It’s a shame that it took an achievement like sending something to Mars to convince me that I belonged in my field, and that I belonged at NASA.
HNM: Can you tell us more about “Mars 2020”? What is the mission? How has the experience been?
Yazzie: Currently, I am the lead engineer for the Mars 2020 Drill Bits. We are sending the Mars 2020 Rover “Perseverance” to drill rock samples and save them in hermetically sealed tubes, so that we can eventually bring those samples back to Earth in future missions to determine if life exists on Mars. Additionally, this mission will study the history of rocky planets and conduct experiments that will pave the way for humans to travel to Mars. It’s really incredible to be part of another historic NASA mission. I’ve grown so much as an engineer—now sending my second flight hardware to Mars, but also being able to lead a team and be a mentor for the first time in my career. I’m very proud to have successfully delivered my parts to the rover, and very excited for the Mars 2020 launch in July 2020.
HNM: How has your Navajo background influenced your career?
Yazzie: Coming from an Indigenous background, I have a deep appreciation for the advancements of my family and ancestors before me. Considering that Native Americans weren’t granted basic civil rights in this country until 1968, it is remarkable that our people have not only overcome this historic oppression, but have been able to thrive and advance. I reflect on my own family, where as recent as one generation ago, my parents spoke no English, but learned in a small amount of time that education was the modern way to advance their people. My own academic achievements and this career I have been fortunate to achieve has all been made possible by the advancements of the Navajo people who have come before me. And it is for them that I use my privilege and platform to continue on.
HNM: What advice would you give to Native Americans wanting to pursue engineering?
Yazzie: Be resilient. It’s almost guaranteed that along your STEM journey, you will look around and not see very many others like you, from backgrounds like your own. But please understand that there are people in all directions of your life that are there to help you. Those before you, who want to help you succeed through mentorship and wisdom. Those beside you, who are on your same journey. And those behind you, who see you as an inspiration and role model. Recognizing that you have a full circle of support and inspiration will help you achieve any and all of your goals.
The Latino community has been standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. LULAC Chief Executive Officer Sindy M. Benavides and UnidosUS Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy Eric Rodriguez shared their thoughts with HISPANIC Network Magazine (HNM) on the Black Lives Matter movement, Latinos’ participation, and the changes they hope to see.
HNM: What were your thoughts when you first heard what happened to George Floyd?
Benavides: Horrified, deeply saddened, but unfortunately not surprised to learn that yet another criminal cop had taken the life of a person of color. America is built upon systemic oppression and discrimination, systems that activists have tried to bring to light and fight against for decades. When we heard of what happened to George Floyd, and when we watched the video of police officers watching their colleague murder a man and refuse to stop him, we were distraught over the state of the police force and the loss of life. We share our thoughts and prayers with George Floyd’s family, as well as the family and communities of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Andres Guardado, Carlos Ingram-Lopez, Erik Salgado, and the hundreds of others who have lost their lives to a discriminatory policing system.
Rodriguez: I was horrified and shocked by George Floyd’s murder. Police killings of unarmed minorities is not a new story, and anyone who is Black or Brown is likely familiar with the type of racial profiling and hyper aggression by law enforcement that played out in that episode. But this incident transpired in daylight, surrounded by people filming it on their smart phones, and with other police officers standing by watching while a handcuffed Black man on the ground is slowly incapacitated and ultimately killed by an officer before their eyes. That’s something most Americans do not see every day.
HNM: What are your thoughts on the policy changes happening? Do you feel they are affecting genuine and lasting change?
Benavides: We need to urgently implement policy changes at the local and national level to dismantle police brutality. LULAC fully believes that these changes, combined with the work of thousands of activists, can help enact lasting change in this deeply flawed society. Policy initiatives like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act are a good start in the long battle of eradicating policy brutality and addressing the variety of issues that take the lives of our Black community in this country. This is a good start, but much more needs to happen both at the federal and local levels for true change to be achieved. We have also joined efforts by progressive allies such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and support the following federal reforms:
Prohibit racial profiling with robust data collection on police-community encounters and law enforcement activities. Data should capture all demographic categories and be disaggregated.
Prohibit all maneuvers that restrict the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain, including neck holds, chokeholds, and similar excessive force, deeming the use of such force a federal civil rights violation.
Require a federal standard that use of force be reserved for only when necessary as a last resort after exhausting reasonable options, and incentivize states to implement this standard; require the use of de-escalation techniques, and the duty to intervene; ban the use of force as a punitive measure or means of retaliation against individuals who only verbally confront officers, or against individuals who pose a danger only to themselves; and require all officers to accurately report all uses of force.
Prohibit the use of no-knock warrants, especially for drug searches.
Rodriguez: The demonstrations and protests have opened up the possibility for real social change. The death of George Floyd, and other recent incidents of racism caught on video, has also helped to open the eyes of many Americans about the many ways that racism shows up in our society. One result is the cross-racial solidarity we have witnessed among the protesters and the advocates calling for change. Another result is the heightened consciousness we see on display across the country. For instance, the historical symbols of racism and prejudice in America are now under intense public scrutiny. Many more Americans seem ready to acknowledge that the heroes and flags of the Confederacy belong in American history books and museums rather than displayed and honored in public places, or on government buildings or civic institutions. And in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, how many more Americans today know what Juneteenth is?
Despite this, when it comes to public policy, I am less hopeful. There are few examples in our history when widespread justice for racial and ethnic minorities transpired absent a strong federal role. The power of the federal government has in most cases been necessary to break up the culture and practice of racism that fossilized in cities, states, and within our institutions.
Yet, we certainly cannot stop fighting for change in political leadership and federal laws. Our CEO and President Janet Murguía contributed to President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force, which identified recommendations for local and state authorities that included community policing and accountability measures. We also support policy changes working their way through Congress, and there is a good chance that some cities will be able to put in place some new practices that can help. Finally, UnidosUS is registering, educating and mobilizing voters this fall in what stands to be a pivotal election.
HNM: How have Latinos stood in solidarity with the Black lives matter movement?
Benavides: Police brutality is an issue that affects both Black and Brown communities. Something that is often missed is that under the ethnicity of Hispanic, we have members who identify as Black, who may be Afro-Latino, or mixed. That is why many Latino organizations and Latino leaders have come out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, including LULAC. We are also working with our councils to ensure they also have the tools to work with their local elected to implement local reforms. LULAC has also created a microsite on our website to make sure that we are providing resources and information to the Latino community on how it can support the Black Lives Movement.
Rodriguez: Latinos are speaking out, protesting and marching, joining advocacy efforts to push for needed policy changes and encouraging self-reflection about how anti-Black racism and colorism shows up within the Latino community. The Latino community, which is about 58 million strong, has also felt the blows of prejudice and inequality. Nearly 25 percent of Latinos identify as Afro-Latino and experience both racial and ethnic discrimination in their daily lives.
The same unchecked police power that has taken the lives of Black Americans is used to separate our families, put children in cages and racially profile us. This broken system has led too many Latinos to fear law enforcement, with deadly consequences—as in the tragic cases of Andres Guardado in Los Angeles and Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez in Tucson.
So, our solidarity with the Black community is rooted in the shared lived experience of facing racism and oppression that harms all communities. Most Latinos do not just empathize with the experience of Black Americans who are abused and targeted by police, but they also identify with that experience.
HNM: How has the Black Lives Matter impacted the Hispanic community?
Benavides: Black Lives Matter has shown the power of sustained grassroots organizing, a great model for the Latino community to follow. We have learned that change takes time and this moment has been 400+ years in the making. Most importantly, we know that their success is our success and that it will benefit all communities who are targeted and marginalized. And, in this process, BLM has spurred a national conversation among Latinos around anti-blackness. It has forced us to look into the mirror and acknowledge our own shortcomings. I think this is a valuable conversation that is sorely needed and we have and continue to learn from it.
Rodriguez: The Black Lives Matter movement has brought necessary attention to the pervasiveness of police abuse and bias that results in the death of Black Americans and the lack of accountability and injustice that follows. The movement has given many Latinos, who have also been harmed, aggrieved or offended by police practices, a voice and a means of expressing their frustration in a way that advances social change. The movement has sparked needed conversations that can push state and local governments to reinvest in their communities in a way that enhances public safety while helping residents thrive economically and socially.
HNM: How can Latinos participate in this movement?
Benavides: Latinx people can participate in the movement by being physically present in support of this movement. And using our voices to practice proper allyship in this time of need and centering Black voices in everything you do. Acknowledge your privileges and make an effort to learn about the Black Lives Matter experience. We encourage everybody in our Latinx community to use their voices for good and support Black voices in all of their actions. ‘Tu lucha es mi lucha’ should ring true to our hearts as we strive to build a more inclusive democracy where all of us are equal and treated equally in all aspects of society.
Rodriguez: Latinos have long been in the fight to end systemic racism and discrimination that manifests across our society and filters through the private sector and our government systems. Eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in health, housing, education, and voting through the courts or Congress have been important ways to tackle structural racism.
Right now, the Congress is debating police reforms. Latinos can call their senators and demand that Leader McConnell bring the Justice in Policing Act to a vote. They can call members of Congress and demand annual congressional oversight hearings to review the status of the implementation of the Death in Custody Reporting Act to compel the collection, reporting, and analysis of all deaths, by race and gender, that occur in law enforcement custody.
Those who are moved to organize and express their concerns about the status quo can do many other things, such as join peaceful marches and protests, demand accountability from political leaders, fight for policy changes at the local level and support and donate to organizations at the forefront of the fight, like Black Lives Matter, NAACP, Color of Change, UndocuBlack, RaceForward and many others.
Latinos can contact their police departments, city council and/or Attorneys General and demand meaningful investigations and prosecutions of incidents involving abuse of force against racial and ethnic minorities. They can vote with these concerns in mind.
And most of all, for those Latinos who, upon self-reflection, recognize that they have been too silent and accepting of anti-Blackness within their circle of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers, it is time to take responsibility and act. If we are to dismantle systemic factors that enable the scourge of anti-Blackness, colorism and race-based violence to grow, we must start by healing ourselves and preparing for the hard work and courageous conversations ahead.