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Growing up in Washington state, Eduardo M. Peñalver dreamed of exploring the skies and space. Longing to be an astronaut, he was a diligent student and in high school secured the nomination from his state’s senator needed to attend the Air Force Academy. But NASA was not in his future.
“I was preparing for my physical when I decided that this process was not the right path for me,“ Peñalver recalled. “Something didn’t feel right, so I changed direction and applied to Cornell to study history. I ended up far from astronaut training.”
That change in direction has led to some historic “firsts.”
Peñalver, 47, was the first Latino dean of Cornell Law School, and he has now been named president of Seattle University, the first Latino and first layperson to head the Jesuit institution since it was founded in 1891. He begins next July.
For Peñalver, who is of Cuban heritage, his appointment as a university president is the latest step in a distinguished academic and legal career. He has been a Rhodes Scholar, a professor of law who clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and the dean of Cornell University’s Law School.
“This is uncharted territory, but we are all doing the best we can,” Peñalver said of taking over during the pandemic. “As educators, we are all hopeful for a vaccine and hopeful that things can begin to get back to normal by next summer.”
Seattle University has approximately 7,000 students, with an undergraduate population that is about 12 percent Hispanic.
Nicole Piasecki, chair of the Seattle University Board of Trustees, said that the selection of Peñalver was “as enthusiastic as it as unanimous.” She praised him in a statement as “an innovative thinker” who is “passionate about the power of the university to make the world a better place.”
Peñalver credits his success, in part, to mentors, including the Stevens (“a kindred spirit”) and former Yale Law Dean Guido Calabresi. “I tell my students that your mentors do not have to look exactly like you. It is about their openness and interest in you,” he said. “For people of color in settings where there are not many of us, many mentors have to be different from us.”
Few Latino College Presidents
Throughout his career, Peñalver said he has been used to being ”the first or the only” Latino. “I have always been aware of that reality; I’ve felt the responsibility to ‘represent’ so to speak. It has always been important to me to do my best, to represent our community well, so that there would be others.”
Recent studies and census data show that the number of Latino college students has been growing, and about 19 percent of U.S. college students are Latino. But in 2016, only 4 percent of college and university presidents were Latino, a figure that has not changed since 2001, according to the American Council on Education.
“The number of Latino college and university presidents has definitely not been rising proportionately to the growth in Latino students,” said Deborah Santiago, chief executive of Excelencia in Education. “But we have seen some appointments of Latinos to larger institutions and systems.” As examples, Santiago pointed to Felix Matos Rodriguez, chancellor of the City University of New York; Joseph Castro, chancellor of the California State University system; and Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges.
Astronaut Ellen Ochoa has a message for the next generation of Latinx students who are aspiring to work in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields: “We need you.”
“We need your minds. We need your creativity,” she told ABC News.
Ochoa, a first generation Mexican-American, made history in the Latinx community as NASA’s first Hispanic astronaut. She took her first space flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. She was also the first Hispanic director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and spent nearly 1,000 hours in space during four shuttle missions.
As the chair of the National Science Board, Ochoa is constantly championing a more inclusive work environment.
“Look at the demographics of our country. They are changing … we have to involve the people in our country. And increasingly, of course, that is people of some kind of Latino or Hispanic heritage,” she said.
For young Latinx students, working in the STEM fields is no longer something out of reach.
“STEM fields offer a unique opportunity to change the world, one person at a time,” said India Carranza, a first generation Puerto Rican and Salvadorian high school junior who aspires to be a physiotherapist. “And being able to help people through their paths and different journeys is one of the unique opportunities of the STEM field.”
Today, Latinx individuals make up nearly 20% of the U.S population and yet just 7% of the STEM workforce.
California is the most diverse state in the nation, so having a diverse leadership of its schools and colleges shouldn’t be that notable.
But it is. Even for California.
This January when Joseph Castro, a Mexican-American and native Californian, becomes chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system, for the first time, leaders of color will head up all four systems of public education in the state.
All will have an impact by being powerful role models for the millions of students, faculty and staff in the systems they lead. A fundamental question, however, is whether the new leadership will translate into concrete changes that create more equitable institutions and contribute to improved education outcomes.
Leaders in the field think it is more likely that it will.
“Diversification of leadership is quite important and significant to meeting the goals of racial equity,” said Adrianna Kezar, director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. “Certainly others are capable of such leadership, but the ability to speak from your heart and authentically about this issue and to have a vision for a direction forward is much more likely to happen with leaders of color.”
In addition to Castro, Dr. Michael Drake, who is African American, became president of the nine-campus University of California system in August. Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who is Latino, is chancellor of the 116 colleges that make up the California community colleges.
Then there is State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who was elected in 2018 to oversee the state’s vast K-12 public education system. Of mixed African American and Panamanian background, he is only the second African American schools chief since the legendary Wilson Riles occupied the post for a dozen years until 1982. Out of 50 state schools chiefs, only one other is Black and a half dozen are Latinos or Latinas.
Together the four Californians — all of them men — oversee institutions with enrollments of nine million students, more than the enrollments in most countries. Their student bodies are extraordinarily diverse, with white students comprising 26 percent or less of their enrollments, depending on the system.
If this new generation of leaders is able to improve the educational success of their students, they will have an outsize impact not only on California’s future, but on the nation as a whole. How they work together will also make a difference as the state attempts to create a more unified “cradle to career” system of education.
What’s also notable is that they are leading their institutions at a time of extraordinary activism and ferment around a range of issues related to racial equity. With that energy and momentum behind them, that could help them move forward on these issues within their institutions. It could also make running them more complicated.
McDonald’s is proud to announce the company’s “HACER® More Scholarship,” that is providing 100 additional scholarships for Hispanic students as an extension of the annual HACER® National Scholarship.
Through HACER, McDonald’s is committing $1 million to assist Hispanic students this academic year, by helping alleviate the stress ofhigher education costs.
According to the Pew Research Center, half of Hispanics said they worry daily or nearly every day about financial issues like paying their bills, the amount of debt they carry and the cost of health care, and more 1 . The increased financial strain caused by the pandemic has also created uncertainty as parents and students work to fund and continue higher education. As a result, McDonald’s created the “HACER® More Scholarship” to help more students pursue college degrees despite the pandemic. So, in 2020, 100 additional scholarships will be awarded, bringing the total to 130, versus 30 in 2019. The additional scholarship recipients will be selected from the 2019 HACER National Scholarship pool of applicants that meet the existing criteria for the scholarship and will be enrolled in school for spring of 2021. “HACER® More Scholarship” recipients will be selected in October, allowing them to use the funds for the current academic year.
“Despite the difficulty of this time, students are showing their resiliency by continuing their education ,” said Santiago Negre, HACER® scholarship committee judge and head of McDonald’s National Hispanic Consumer Market Committee. “McDonald’s and our owner/operators are committed to our communities and customers, so we are honored to contribute to the educational pursuits of Hispanic students through the HACER® National Scholarship program, having done so for the last 35 years.”
The McDonald’s HACER® National Scholarship is one of the largest programs committed to college scholarships. Since 1985, it has awarded $31.5 million to Hispanic college students pursuing their higher education dreams. This year, in addition toreceiving scholarships, the 30 winners of the 2020 HACER® National Scholarship received a “tech backpack” that included a laptop, wireless mouse, and headphones—some of the tools needed to succeed in a virtual learning environment.
“It’s a huge relief to know even with the difficulties we’re all facing this year, like adapting to a new way of learning, keeping ourselves and our families safe, and more, that I no longer have to worry about the burden of tuition costs thanks to McDonald’s,” 1. “Coronavirus Economic Downturn Has Hit Latinos Especially Hard.” Pew Re search Center, Washington D.C. (August 4, 2020) https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2020/08/04/coronavirus-economic-downturn-has-hit-latinos-especially-hard/ said Vladimir Rosales, one of the 2020 HACER® National Scholarship winners, awarded $100,000 to attend San Jose State University in California. “I’m thankful that this year McDonald’s is not only supporting me in achieving my higher education goals but is also giving another 100 Hispanic students the same opportunity.”
The McDonald’s HACER® National Scholarship is just one of many company initiatives created to educate the next generation of youth. This includes the Black & Positively Golden Scholarships for students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the McDonald’s/APIA Scholarship program for Asian and Pacific-Islander American students. The Archways to Opportunity program for crew gives eligible employees at participating U.S. restaurants the ability to earn a high school diploma, receive upfront college tuition assistance, access free education/career advising services and learn English as a second language.
Hispanic college-bound high school seniors and their parents are encouraged to visit mcdonalds.com/hacer for additional college resources in English and Spanish and for details on how to apply for the McDonald’s HACER® National Scholarship.
The scholarship application period for the next academic year opens on October 5, 2020 and runs through February 3, 2021.
McDonald’s USA, LLC, serves a variety of menu options made with quality ingredients to nearly 25 million customers every day. Ninety-five percent of McDonald’s 14,000 U.S. restaurants are independently owned and operated by businessmen and women. For more information, visit www.mcdonalds.com, or follow us on Twitter @McDonalds and Facebook. www.facebook.com/mcdonalds .
When Luis Miranda arrived in New York City from Puerto Rico in the 1970s, he looked like many young students of his time, with his jeans and shaggy hair. In the Big Apple, though, he realized that not everyone wanted people like him. Instead of culture shock, he experienced discrimination. “It didn’t matter if you were a janitor or a PhD student,” Miranda recalled, “what they saw was Puerto Rican, some brown person, some brown kid. Not a real American.”
Miranda went on to become an activist, a government official, a political consultant, and a loving father to three children—including his son, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway smash, “Hamilton.” Now the older Miranda, who has long been a behind-the-scenes player in Democratic politics, is in the spotlight in a new documentary, “Siempre, Luis,” debuting October 6 on HBO and HBO Max.
A camera crew spent a year following Miranda around, capturing his family life, political work, heath issues and humanitarian efforts. Watching the film, Miranda told NBC News, was an emotional experience for him.
“What comes to mind is how many great people I have met and known throughout my life; people who either convinced me that I had to join their fight, or I convinced that they had to join me, and together we have moved forward,” he said. “It was a reminder of how many people have helped me, (and) that I didn’t have time to thank them all.”
Luis A. Miranda Jr., 66, was born in the town of Vega Alta in Puerto Rico. A sharp student, he headed for New York City in the 1970s to continue his graduate work, inspired by—of all things—the character played by Debbie Reynolds in the 1964 movie musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
In Nueva York, Miranda became an advocate for the city’s Latino residents, who were then predominantly Puerto Rican. By the 1980s, Miranda was a special advisor to Mayor Ed Koch, eventually becoming the Director of the Mayor’s Office for Hispanic Affairs.
In 1990, Miranda founded the non-profit Hispanic Federation, and has also been a key Democratic political consultant, working on U.S. Senate campaigns including Hillary Clinton’s as well as Rep. Adriano Espaillat’s, D-NY, who became the first Dominican American in the U.S. Congress.
Miranda has been a champion of his son’s ambitions as well. When a young, struggling Lin-Manuel received an offer for a full-time teaching job, his father advised him to follow his dreams instead. He helped promote his son’s off-Broadway musical “In The Heights” until it became successful and transferred to Broadway.
In fact, the younger Miranda credits his Dad as being part of his inspiration for “Hamilton”—Founding Father Alexander Hamilton also arrived in New York from the Caribbean—he was from the island of Nevis. “When I was playing him, I was just playing my father,” said Lin-Manuel.
“Siempre, Luis” highlights the devastating impact that Hurricane Maria had on Puerto Rico in 2017, and in the documentary, Miranda cries as he recalled the destruction. “For me, Puerto Rico is this untouchable, perfect place,” he says in the film, “that all of a sudden, doesn’t exist anymore.” A central focus of the film is the lengthy process, that was not without controversy, by which Miranda and Lin-Manuel bring a production of “Hamilton” to the island as a way of raising funds for Puerto Rico’s recovery.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, about 25% of the United States’ children are a part of the Latinx community, yet they are the most underrepresented ethnic group in children’s books.
In a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, they found that only 5% of the thousands of children’s books available had Latinx main characters. This is not only odd in terms of the importance of representation and racial equality, but economically as Latinx community makes up for about $1.5 trillion of the United States’ buying power.
One of the main beliefs for this underrepresentation appears to come from the publishing industry itself. Over 70% of publishers are Caucasian and as a result, create stories that are more familiar to their own stories or are out of touch with the Latinx community.
To combat this underrepresentation, twelve authors of the Latinx community have come together to form LatinxPitch, an organization dedicated to creating proper Latinx representation in literature and increasing the number of Latinx people in the industry. Beginning on September 15th, the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month, the group invited Latinx authors to use their Twitter platform to pitch ideas for children’s and young adult stories of varying genres. At the same time, LatinxPitch also invited Latinx publishers and agents to browse the pitches in search for new clients to represent. The work being done through LatinxPitch is not only working to create more representation, but is providing Latinx people a place to receive work, network, and make their ideas known.
The LatinxPitch is made up of twelve founding members: Mariana Llanos, Jorge Lacera, Sara Fajardo, Cynthia Harmony, Ana Siqueira, Mona Alvarado Frazier, Ernesto Cisneros, Nydia Armendia, Darlene P. Campos, Stephen Briseño, Denise Adusei, and Tatiana Gardel.
Cities want to attract highly educated workers to fuel their economic growth and tax revenues. Higher levels of education tend to lead to higher salaries.
Plus, the more that graduates earn, the more tax dollars they contribute over time, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In turn, educated people want to live somewhere where they will get a good return on their educational investment.
People also tend to marry others of the same educational level, which means that cities that already have a large educated population may be more attractive to people with degrees.
Not all highly educated people will flock to the same areas, though. Some may prefer to have many people with similar education levels around them for socializing and career connections. Others may want to be a big fish in a little pond. Not every city will provide the same quality of life to those with higher education, either. In addition, the most educated cities could shift in the near future depending on how well cities deal with the current COVID-19 crisis and its impact on schooling.
To determine where the most educated Americans are putting their degrees to work, WalletHub compared the 150 largest metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs, across 11 key metrics. Our data set ranges from the share of adults aged 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher to the quality of the public-school system to the gender education gap.
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.
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.
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.