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Focus on diversity

Native Americans find their niche in technology

The number of Native Americans studying and working in technology grows daily

Culture and tradition can pose challenges to career success

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Lori Pearson is a senior business manager responsible for over forty applications at Xcel Energy.

Lori Pearson is a senior business manager responsible for over forty applications at Xcel Energy.

Chris Cornelius develops materials for hydrogen and methanol fuel cells at Sandia Labs.

Chris Cornelius develops materials for hydrogen and methanol fuel cells at Sandia Labs.

Native Americans are making slow but definite progress in technology careers, and education is making the difference. According to a study released in 2005 by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST, www.cpst.org), Native Americans, who represent about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population, account for just over 1 percent of undergraduate enrollment in science and engineering. In 2002 more than twice as many Native Americans were enrolled in masters programs for science and engineering as in 1991.

The study, "The Status of Native Americans in Science and Engineering," was prepared by Eleanor L. Babco, the recently retired executive director of CPST. She made several other important points:

  • From 1990 to 2000 the percentage of Native Americans age twenty-five and over who had completed high school increased from almost 66 percent to 71 percent.
  • Currently, 11.5 percent of Native Americans have a bachelors degree. Babco points out that increasing numbers of Native Americans will be eligible for college enrollment in the coming years, because of the improved rate of high-school graduation and the large proportion of Native Americans under age eighteen.
  • Native Americans are as likely to earn science or engineering degrees as other underrepresented ethnic/racial groups. In 2002, at the bachelors level, about a third of all degrees awarded to Native Americans, blacks, Hispanics and whites were in science and engineering fields.

    Overcoming obstacles
    Why don't Native Americans study science and engineering or pursue technical careers in greater numbers? There are certainly many reasons, but cultural factors apparently play some role.

    "I can't speak for all Native Americans, because each nation's traditions are very different," says Monica Peters, a freelance IT consultant who grew up on the Mohawk reservation on the border of New York State and Canada. "But I was raised to be more in touch with nature, so there wasn't a big interest in science and engineering. And some Native Americans have other issues to deal with, like having clean water to drink."

    "I don't think the computing field is appealing to a lot of Native Americans, because they may see it as too cold," suggests Lou Kelly, a web developer at Colorado Springs Utilities (Colorado Springs, CO) with Cherokee-Apache heritage. "Native Americans are very spiritual, and computing doesn't have a spiritual feel to it."

    Lori Pearson, a senior business manager with Xcel Energy (Minneapolis, MN), recommends that Native Americans look more closely at how math, science and technology apply to daily life. "When you're Native American, much of the focus is on maintaining tradition. I think parents should reinforce traditional ways, but be specific about introducing math, science and the technologies. Make both a priority.

    "Technologies can co-exist with traditional ways," she continues. She notes that there are "many wonderful tribal websites. Our Winnebago tribe has a website, and it's terrific. It talks about history as well as some of the new things that are going on in the community."

    Chuck Daughtry

    Chuck Daughtry

    Economic factors play a part too. Over half of Native Americans, 57 percent, live outside of major metropolitan areas, and rural children in the U.S. have the highest poverty rates.

    Another perspective is offered by Chuck Daughtry, senior operations service manager at BellSouth (Atlanta, GA) who is Poarch Creek. When asked why he thinks there aren't more Native Americans in technical careers, he says, "I'm not so sure there aren't. My brother and first cousin retired from Western Electric. Another brother retired from AT&T;, where another first cousin is close to retirement. So, out of my tribe, you could say that a lot of Native Americans are in technical fields. There are many Native Americans working for BellSouth today. I guess it depends on what part of the country you come from."

    In fact, Native Americans are pursuing a variety of technical careers. Here are profiles of seven of them.

    Colorado Springs Utilities' Lou Kelly manages Web content
    Lou Kelly

    Lou Kelly

    "I'm a Web developer," says Lou Kelly, whose official title at Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU, Colorado Springs, CO) is applications intermediate. CSU provides natural gas, electric, water and wastewater services to the city.

    One of her primary applications is for content management. "It allows users to go in through a Web interface and type in their content for the Web server," she explains. "It manages our Internet and intranet content and standardizes all of the style sheets. All that our content contributors have to worry about is the body of the page itself. This tool takes everything else and puts it together and publishes it on our websites."

    Kelly, whose work can be found at csu.org, has been with the company since 1989. She did computer training before taking on her Web development role five years ago. She's also been a webmaster for the company's electric division. She started out as a Smart Tools developer, but "We phased out that old technology and started using more standardized stuff, like Java."

    The web content management team includes two other people besides Kelly. They're all part of the larger enterprise business solutions group.

    Kelly grew up in Colorado Springs; her mother is Cherokee and Apache. She studied business computers at the University of Colorado (UC) at Colorado Springs. She has also taken several national courses through UC-Denver to get her webmaster and XML certifications.

    People skills are critical to her line of work, says Kelly. "You really have to know how to communicate with a variety of people, how to get the answers you need to help them. I think you can develop those skills."

    Chuck Daughtry: operations service leader at BellSouth
    Chuck Daughtry is the senior manager in charge of sixteen operations service managers, who together handle large business telephone accounts for BellSouth customers. His group is part of the BellSouth Long Distance customer service center, which employs about 500.

    Daughtry was with AT&T; for twenty-nine years before joining BellSouth eight years ago. "Most of my career has been on the technical side of telephone equipment and customer service," he says. "For my last two jobs at AT&T;, I was a subject matter expert, a technical supervisor for No. 4 ESS electronic switching machines. For about three years my job was to go around and teach the �Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.'"

    Daughtry, a full-blooded Poarch Creek, grew up on the reservation in Atmore, AL, about fifty miles north of Mobile on the Gulf Coast. He started on the path to a technical career in high school. He got good grades, and his principal suggested he interview with United Electronics Laboratories (Birmingham, AL).

    "The thing that attracted me was you could work and receive an education at the same time. My dad couldn't afford to send me to school," Daughtry says.

    He got an associates degree in electronics through United Electronics. He also has a 1994 bachelors from Regis University (Denver, CO) and a 1995 master of human resources from National-Louis University (Chicago, IL).

    In addition to his regular job, Daughtry is the president of the Intertribal Council of BellSouth Employees (ICBE), one of six diversity networking groups within the company. "There are some things that many corporations don't know about Native American culture," Daughtry says. "When you interview a Native American student, he may not look you in the eye all the time. He may not shake your hand firmly. You need to know that's part of the culture.

    "That's a lot of what ICBE is about. We want to educate the leadership about Native Americans. BellSouth is a big supporter of the Native American community."

    Malcolm Gonzales: engineer at Florida Power & Light
    Malcolm Gonzales, PE is a principal component engineer at the Turkey Point nuclear plant near Homestead, FL, operated by Florida Power & Light Co (Juno Beach, FL). Gonzalez specializes in "rotating equipment, basically pumps." He also monitors and oversees plant overhauls, procurement and upgrades. He interfaces with contractors, does shop inspections, writes procedures for new pieces of equipment, and performs "root cause" evaluations of pump failures. "Occasionally I get involved in technical field support at other sites," he adds.

    Gonzales began his career with Florida Power & Light nine years ago as a systems engineer. Within six months he moved to his current job, where the work is similar to what he'd enjoyed at other nuclear plants. During his career he's worked in New Jersey, Texas, Illinois and California.

    Gonzales got his degree in ME from the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque, NM). He grew up on the Cochiti Indian reservation near Santa Fe, NM. "Going from the reservation to the college was a bit of a shock. I had to adapt to American pop culture, the music and all that. It was difficult," he recalls. "I've talked to Native American kids that have gone to college, in engineering and other majors, and that tends to be the biggest obstacle. You're stepping out of your comfort zone. You have to adapt and get comfortable with the cultural aspects at the same time you are trying to devote your energies to your studies. It can be difficult."

    Fortunately the University of New Mexico has a large population of Native American students. "I rented an apartment with some other Native American kids who were there, and there was an AISES support group on campus."

    He advises students to find such support groups, and to "go to a school that's close to home, so you can go back and recharge your batteries. Usually the school support and the family support will get you through. Remember who you are too. You may find that you're the only Native American your classmates have ever met."

    He says written and verbal communication skills are important. "To be able to convey what you're thinking and write it down in a concise way is critical," he says. "Native American kids tend to be quiet and shy people. Even though I hated it, I pushed myself to do public speaking and things like that."

    Xcel Energy's Lori Pearson works in IT for electric and gas
    Lori Pearson

    Lori Pearson

    Loriene (Lori) Alberta Pearson, a senior business manager at Xcel Energy (Minneapolis, MN), works in the business systems IT area, formally called customer enterprise solutions. Xcel Energy is a major U.S. electricity and natural gas company, with operations in ten western and midwestern states.

    "I manage a team of six professionals responsible for providing solutions to the electric and gas distribution areas of Xcel Energy," she explains. "So we're responsible for more than forty applications, like a work management system, an outage management system, a GIS system and a design tool."

    Pearson, an enrolled member of the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska, has worked for Xcel for twenty-five years. She moved up through the ranks after beginning as a typist in the design area. At one point, while taking electricity classes at a local vocational school, she served as a job reconciler. "I received the documentation on completed construction jobs and balanced the materials and labor associated with them. That allowed me to work with the construction folks and go out in the field to look at the jobs.

    "Through a series of promotions I became an electric distribution designer," she says. "In fact, I was one of just a few women hired to do design work back in the late 80s. It was paper and pencil then."

    When the company was looking to implement a geographic imaging system (GIS), "I was brought onto the IT team as a business subject matter expert," she recalls. "I helped train other designers in the new GIS tool, and after a short time I became the implementation team manager. Then I became the GIS manager."

    Pearson has taken business classes through Metro State University (Minneapolis, MN). Basic electricity classes at Dunwoody Institute (Minneapolis, MN) were also helpful. "Whatever my next goal was, I would take the applicable classes," says Pearson. "I don't have a full college degree yet."

    She encourages Native Americans to further their educations. "Native Americans are people of intelligence, pride and fortitude," she says. "My advice is to recognize that discipline and tenacity will be required to be successful. This means continuing your education and being open to new ideas while maintaining your authenticity. Believe in yourself and know that you have the aptitude to do well. Your reward will be lucrative work that allows you to create solutions for issues that affect you, your family and your people."

    Bonneville's Del A. Niemeyer sees to district communications
    Del A. Niemeyer

    Del A. Niemeyer

    Del A. Niemeyer is district engineer for the Kalispell, MT communications area of Bonneville Power Administration (BPA, Portland OR). BPA is a federal agency that manages electricity transmission and markets wholesale electrical power throughout the Pacific Northwest.

    Niemeyer is responsible for operations and maintenance of a communication system that covers most of northwest Montana. "I work on many construction projects as well," he explains. "They involve power systems, battery installations, microwave/UHF/ VHF radio installations, fiberoptic systems, and the buildings that house all the equipment, many of which are located on mountaintop radio sites. We also have a lot of communications end equipment in our electrical power substations that is used for the protection and operation of the power system."

    The work can include fielding questions via e-mail or phone, finishing paperwork, or driving to a mountaintop or substation to do maintenance or install equipment. "A large part of our work is double-ended, meaning we need two people to look at both ends of the equipment," he says. "We work closely as a team because of this, but we work individually as well."

    Niemeyer grew up in Hot Springs, MT on the western edge of the Flathead Indian Reservation in the northwest part of the state. He is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. He received his EE degree from Montana State University (Bozeman, MT) in 1980.

    During school he attended a job fair where, "I met with a couple of people from Bonneville Power who set me up for summer work." The first summer he worked with the company's meter and relaying group, then in the communications group, doing work that's similar to what he does now. But there were no jobs available at BPA when he graduated.

    After graduation he worked for two years for the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Flathead Reservation Irrigation Project in Polson, MT. When a district engineer job opened up at BPA, the company recruited him for the position. "In my case, the summer work was invaluable for my future," he says.

    Niemeyer's advice for students is to choose a curriculum that will allow them to do what they want and live where they want. "Most of the students in technical studies at Montana State University end up going to jobs outside of Montana. I am lucky that I was able to find a job as an electrical engineer in my home state relatively close to where I grew up," he says.

    Sandia's Chris Cornelius is a chemical engineer
    Chris Cornelius

    Chris Cornelius

    Chris Cornelius, a principal member of the technical staff at Sandia Labs (Albuquerque, NM), works on some exciting technical projects. He's part of a Sandia team developing materials for hydrogen and methanol fuel cells and is also working on desalinization technology using ionomers for electrodialysis.

    Sandia is a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory that does research and development related to national security, energy and environmental technologies.

    Cornelius joined Sandia in 2000 after completing a masters in engineering and a PhD in chemical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Blacksburg, VA). His dissertation focused on polymers, sol-gel chemistry and gas transport. His undergraduate ChE degree is from Montana State University (Bozeman, MT).

    He grew up in Billings, MT as a member of the Oneida tribe. His grandfather encouraged him to study medicine, but he was drawn to chemical engineering because of his "curiosity about how things interact with one another." Between high school and college he worked as a grocery-store cashier and an X-ray technician, and began a family.

    Like many Native Americans, he initially found undergraduate college life difficult. "It was hard to be accepted by the other students," he recalls. "I had two things going against me: one, I was Native American, and two, I had three kids. So I didn't quite fit in. I tried to participate in study groups, but none ever clicked for me. Part of it was that the other kids just weren't comfortable with someone who was different."

    But he persevered and was the first Native American to graduate from the school's chemical engineering program. His strategy for academic success at Montana State was to "make my professors my study group. I would put a series of questions together, based on homework and what was taught during the courses, and then I would engage the professors and get them to answer my questions. They came to know me."

    Between undergraduate and graduate school Cornelius worked for a year at Dow Chemical in Freeport, TX as a research engineer, then for 3M in Aberdeen, SD as a process engineer for a year and a half. Then he decided to go back to school.

    He found graduate school considerably easier. "Undergrad was very difficult socially, but graduate school turned out to be enjoyable. I was able to network with students in chemistry and ChE and I felt as though I was part of a community," he says. "The composition of a graduate program tends to be much more diverse than it is for undergrad, from what I saw at Montana State, where I was the only minority in my program. But even in graduate school, I was the first Native American to complete the chemical engineering program."

    Why aren't there more Native Americans on technical career paths? "We're raised to show respect for our elders by being good listeners. Talking is second. In undergrad and graduate school, listening is important, but you also have to force yourself to be an extrovert, to come out of your shell. You have to engage people, so you're known. You can't be the shy one sitting in the back of the class. The same applies to the professional world. You can have great ideas, but if you don't communicate them, people will think you don't have anything to contribute."

    Bechtel SAIC's Chris Hicks processes tech documents
    Chris Hicks

    Chris Hicks

    Chris Hicks, who graduated in 2005 from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas with a degree in EE, was a post-graduate intern at Bechtel SAIC (Las Vegas, NV) in the winter of 2005-6. He was hired as a full-time EE in March 2006 Bechtel SAIC Co is the prime contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy's Yucca Mountain site. It develops solutions for the safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste.

    "I process documents for public release and I review them for posting on the Internet," he says. "These are internal technical documents to support projects like nuclear fuel handling and building construction. They deal with how a facility is going to be constructed and how spent nuclear fuel will be handled."

    He began working for Bechtel SAIC in 2004, initially as a summer intern. At the end of his first summer he was hired part time so he could work while finishing school. After graduation he became a full-time intern.

    Hicks grew up in Fallon, NV, a small town outside of Reno. His tribal affiliation is Paiute Shoshone. When he started college he planned to become a secondary-school teacher, but he took a few EE classes and talked to some department chairs about what such a major would encompass. "After that I just went for it, and I didn't stop until I graduated," he says.

    He says Native Americans do not pursue technical careers "because they aren't exposed to the importance of education. What I see is that a lot of them aren't serious about school. They don't see going to a four-year program as being very beneficial to them and their family in the long term. More awareness of the importance of education would help."

    Monica Peters freelances in IT
    Monica Peters, who grew up on the Mohawk reservation on the border between New York State and Canada, began working as a freelance IT consultant and Web developer in 1996. She's been working with computers since 1978 when her dad brought one home.

    Over the last ten years she has worked for both small startups and Fortune 1000 corporations, in roles as diverse as Web programmer, developer, designer, Flash animator, Actionscript programmer, HTML coder, Internet security consultant, technical trainer and system administrator. One of her largest assignments was a two-year stint on a shopping portal for a company called World Media.

    She admits that, because of changes in the economy, it has been more difficult to get work since 2002. She continues to build websites for clients and has branched out into creating web bots, chat bots and machine-translation programs that include translations of Native American languages and dialects. She features some of this work on her website, onkwehonwe.com.

    Peters has certification as a Unix/Linux system administrator from the University of Illinois continuing education site Useractive.com. She graduated from Mennonite Community College (Calgary, Alberta) in 2004 with a certificate in business entrepreneurship.

    In college she joined Toastmasters International, the organization that helps people to develop public-speaking skills. "It was very helpful and they were very supportive," says Peters.

    Her advice to Native Americans thinking of a technical career is not to heed negative influences. "Some older people in my life meant well, but if I had listened to them, they would have gotten me down," she says. "Be respectful and listen, but ultimately follow your instincts. There is a lot that can be learned from them, especially in Native communities."

    Some of her elders were angry, she says, because they felt her work with artificial intelligence was contrary to Mohawk culture and they didn't like the idea of "robots" speaking their language. "But everything has an energy or spirit to it," Peters says. "I think of everything that way, even computers."


    Michael Gates is a freelance writer based in Jersey City, NJ.

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