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Focus on diversity

Native Americans go high-tech

With tribal and other minority-focused scholarships to help, feisty Native kids are fighting their way to and through college and taking their places in the technical workforce

There aren't as many as there should be, but a number of Natives are pulling out all the stops in high-level, high-stress positions

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Navajo EE Frank Martinez manages Intel's worldwide digital inclusion program.

Navajo EE Frank Martinez manages Intel's worldwide digital inclusion program.

Navajo Amos Pete is an electrical automation engineer working for W.L. Gore.

Navajo Amos Pete is an electrical automation engineer working for W.L. Gore.

'The number of Native Americans going into engineering and IT is much higher than it used to be, but it's still well below what it should be," says Dr Robert Whitman, former chair of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and a senior lecturer in the University of Denver's department of engineering.

In 1995, he notes, Native Americans made up only about 0.2 percent of U.S. engineers and computer and math scientists according to National Science Foundation figures. But Census Bureau figures put Native Americans at 0.9 percent of the population.

Today the situation looks somewhat better. Whitman explains that AISES works to encourage Native high school students to go to college, and steers them toward technical degrees and careers in various engineering disciplines.

"But it remains difficult to convince students that engineering is right for them," he says. Lack of math and science stimulus in high school, a major stumbling block, is all too common in reservation, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and other rural schools.

Pre-engineering at the tribal colleges
Even higher education may be limiting, since a number of tribal colleges are two-year institutions, more geared to trades than professions. But some are now considering offering pre-engineering programs for those two years.

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI, Albuquerque, NM) hopes to eventually establish a fully accredited four-year engineering program. But for now it's creating a solid two-year program leading to an associates degree in engineering, plus the guidance and preparation to go on to a BS at a four-year school. "We're hoping that SIPI will be a model for other tribal colleges," Whitman says.

Making connections
Whitman stresses the importance of Native American faculty in retaining Native American students. Arizona State University has the largest number of Native students: 1,437 enrolled this year in all disciplines. Better still, it has twenty-six Native American faculty members.

"Students are more likely to be upfront with a professor who's Native American like themselves," says Whitman. "Having appropriate faculty, mentors and counselors in place to encourage students to stick it out can make a difference."

Whitman's BSEE is from the University of New Mexico, his MSEE from Colorado State University and his PhD in EE from the University of Colorado (Boulder, CO). "I was the first Navajo to receive a PhD in engineering," he notes proudly. "Today there are five Navajos with PhDs in engineering and several more in the pipeline."

Navajo Frank Martinez, MSEE at Intel
Intel Corp (Santa Clara, CA) makes microprocessors, ICs, motherboard chipsets and the like for computers, servers, networking equipment and communications products. The company currently employs 100,000 people worldwide.

Frank Martinez is worldwide digital inclusion program manager for Intel's customer solutions group. He's responsible for setting the strategy and managing the operations of Intel's worldwide digital inclusion program, which aims to increase the global market for computers and accelerate their use in business and among students, educators and everybody else.

"We have more than 170 active programs in fifty countries," Martinez says. "We're working with government and industry leaders to create a foundation on which to broaden access to computers in historically underrepresented populations, nations and regions."

There are two sides to the project: the business side, where Martinez works, and the socially conscious side. "We have to bridge the digital divide," he explains. "We provide access to PCs, and we're working on broadband wireless connectivity, as well as end-user education and training for teachers."

Martinez grew up in Window Rock, AZ on the Navajo Reservation. He didn't know exactly what an engineer was, but he decided to become one anyway. "It just sounded cool," he says.

"I didn't have a lot of mentoring as a kid. My school mostly taught trades, and I really had to learn math by myself. I got accepted into Arizona State University's engineering program, but I didn't realize what it was all about until my sophomore year," Martinez says with a laugh.

Underscoring the importance of Native mentors, Martinez recalls that he once ran into Dr Whitman at an AISES conference. Whitman encouraged him to keep on with his studies. "Just to see another Native accomplish so much was an inspiration," Martinez says.

He also benefited from the Navajo Nation's strong emphasis on education. "The tribe sees education as a priority, and each year it provides as many scholarships as it can covering tuition, books and board. My parents and I would never have been able to afford undergraduate school without that help."

He got his BSEE in 1989. Then he went to Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) for his 1991 MSEE, helped out by academic scholarships from the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, Inc (GEM) and a university fellowship from Cornell.

In school, Martinez worked summers as a test engineer at a Colorado location of Hewlett-Packard (Palo Alto, CA). He also spent six months as artist-in-residence at the Heard Museum (Phoenix, AZ).

In 1992 Martinez was selected for the graduate rotation program at Intel. "Intel is a big company that allows you to aspire to and accomplish great things," he says. "I started in EE doing high-speed chip design. Now I'm doing business development around the world and helping others get the benefit of technology. I'm lucky to be able to meet both my professional and personal goals in this job."

Some day Martinez may take his skills back to the reservation. "I'd like to harness the investment the Navajo Nation made in me to help create jobs and a sustainable economy," he reflects.

Meanwhile he's doing well at Intel, which "strives to hire and retain the best talent from an increasingly global and diverse labor pool," according to Paul S. Otellini, Intel president and CEO.

Navajo Amos Pete does electrical automation at W.L. Gore
Amos Pete.

Amos Pete.

Amos Pete is the youngest of three brothers who grew up on the Navajo Reservation and went on to become engineers. He is an electrical automation engineer with W.L. Gore. Gore is a multinational firm making a wide range of products, from fabrics to coaxial cable, filtration equipment and the products turned out by the medical device division in Flagstaff, AZ where Pete works.

The Pete brothers grew up in a large family in the remote Beshbito Valley. "We were out on the edge of nowhere without running water or electricity. Maybe the three of us went into technology because we didn't have any modern household technology when we were young," Amos reflects.

Their parents were eager for the kids to get an education, and Amos Pete started boarding school in kindergarten. He lived there all week but came home on weekends, unlike the older kids who sometimes went months without seeing their parents. "You learned to deal with it," he says.

Amos Pete liked his high school classes in electronics, math and science. But once out of high school it was nine years before he went on to Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff, AZ), and by then he was married with two children.

"I started in 1991 when the kids were four and five years old. For a while my wife had to stay in Chinle with the kids and I came home from Flagstaff on weekends," he says.

In the middle of his senior year he took a job as a senior manufacturing technician with Intel Corp in Chandler, AZ. But when he received his BSEE in 1996 he moved to Sedona Scientific Inc (Sedona, AZ) as an associate EE, working with the development engineering team. In 1998 he joined W.L. Gore.

In his current position Amos Pete is part of the electrical automation team, providing equipment to make vascular grafts, catheters and stents. "We identify what is needed and build the manufacturing equipment," he explains. "I do software design and validation, and support changes to existing software."

Amos Pete's daughter is now in college and thinking of a CE major. His son is in Afghanistan with the military, and may also go into engineering when he gets home. Pete is doing his best to encourage other Native children to seek and prepare for a college education. He has visited reservation schools to promote engineering careers, and tutored high school students.

Navajo Roy H. Pete is a software engineer with Boeing
Roy Pete.

Roy Pete.

Roy H. Pete, the second Pete brother, is a software engineer level 4 for the Boeing Co (Chicago, IL), the huge aerospace, commercial and military aviation supplier.

There's a lot of variety to his work. "I started on the commercial side in 1997 but soon moved to the military side," he says. He's currently on a test team of five or six software engineers, "doing a project for the Army that involves communication for combat units."

Like his brother, Roy Pete went to Northern Arizona University, working part time for the U.S. Geological Survey and receiving his BSCS in 1977. He started as a computing analyst for McDonnell Douglas Corp (Long Beach, CA) in 1977, spent a year with Computer Sciences Corp from 1992-4, then re-joined McDonnell Douglas as a software engineer in 1994. He moved to Boeing three years later.

To keep current with technology, Roy Pete has taken courses at the University of California-Irvine, Orange Coast College, Golden West College and Long Beach City College. His daughter attends U California-Fullerton as a business major with a minor in telecom and computer networking.

Boarding school, he remembers, was like the military with a lot of strict rules. Speaking Navajo was discouraged at school, but all three brothers are fluent in the language. "I brush up on it when I go back to the reservation," Roy Pete says. "My daughter doesn't speak it, though, so maybe we're losing it."

Navajo Leonard Pete: CE tech in and around the reservation
Leonard Pete.

Leonard Pete.

Leonard Pete is the oldest of the three engineering brothers and the one who stayed closest to home. After graduating from Northern Arizona University in 1974 with a BS in CE technology, he went to work as a construction inspector and CE technologist with the BIA provincial roads department on the Navajo Reservation.

In 1985 he left to work for Indian Health Services, still on the reservation. He designed, tested and oversaw the construction of wells, cisterns, septic tanks, drain fields, water and sewer lines.

He returned to BIA provincial roads in 1989 and spent more than fifteen years as a supervisor, working out of the main office in Gallup, NM.

He retired this March and took a position as a CE technologist with the Apache County roads department. "It's more maintenance now. I use a lot of what I've learned over the years, checking the location of pipes and drainage structures and new installations of septic tanks and drain fields."

Leonard was the first Pete brother to get to Northern Arizona University. He started in psychology and sociology in the late 1960s, then went to Vietnam.

"When I came back I was stationed in El Paso, TX and took drafting and welding courses in the evenings. After I left the service in 1971 I went back to Northern Arizona and changed my major to CE. I liked the math, the calculations and the computations," he says.

Although the Petes' mother never went to formal school at all and their father only completed junior high, seven of the nine kids in the family won through to college degrees.

Los Alamos values the strength that diversity offers
Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos, NM) was established in 1943 to do R&D as part of the Manhattan Project that developed the atom bomb. Today the lab continues to focus on U.S. nuclear capability. It has more than 11,000 employees and about 200 subcontractors.

Amy Sahota, from the lab's office of equal opportunity, notes that "Los Alamos values the diversity of its workforce. It brings strength to our science mission and to the lives of our employees, and strengthens our position as a world-class scientific institution."

Tewa Pueblo Janel Big Crow: IT tools at Los Alamos
Janel Big Crow.

Janel Big Crow.

Janel Big Crow comes from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. Her mother is Tewa, from one of the nineteen Indian pueblos in New Mexico. Her father is Crow Creek Sioux, from the Ft. Thompson Reservation in South Dakota.

At Los Alamos, Big Crow is a tech staff member in the advanced information and business application development group. She streamlines and improves IT tools for the lab's financial departments, and develops and maintains financial apps used by internal lab organizations for data storage, analysis and reporting.

"I work in a group of mostly software developers," she explains. "Most of my time is spent doing actual application development, testing, training and implementation."

Big Crow was born at Santa Clara and went away to a Native boarding school in Oregon, where she met her future husband. The couple returned to live in Santa Clara, and their two sons, now twenty-one and thirteen, were born there.

Even as a child Big Crow worked with her mother, Earlene Youngbird Tafoya, to make the decorated redware pots for which Tafoya is famous. When Big Crow got back to Santa Clara she began to make her own pottery, and continues to practice her art today.

She also began to work toward a two-year degree in computer technology at Northern New Mexico Community College, which she received in 1990 with highest honors. She went on to the University of New Mexico and the College of Santa Fe, where she completed her BSCS in 1999.

"College seemed to take forever since I was a mother, wife, employee and student all at the same time. But despite the hardships my overall experience was very positive," Big Crow says.

She started at Los Alamos in 1990 with her two-year degree, working with experienced software developers as mentors. "What I learned in my college courses I used at work and added real-life experience in the field," she says.

Big Crow's older son will be enrolling at Haskell, a tribal college in Lawrence, Kansas, and is considering a ChE major. Her younger son is at the Santa Fe Indian School, which she feels is very good at college prep. "My husband and I have worked to reestablish a connection with our Native culture," she notes. "We made sure that the boys learned both Tewa and Sioux customs and we participate in the religious ceremonies of both groups."

At work, Big Crow is part of the lab's American Indian diversity group, has served as a judge at school science fairs and worked on lab-supported information fairs and employee panels. Native tech staff members who are female are quite rare at Los Alamos. Although Big Crow loves her work there, she dreams of someday starting a consulting business to help Native communities with their own IT needs.

Navajo Daniel Deschinny Jr is a senior EE at Raytheon
Daniel Deschinny.

Daniel Deschinny.

Daniel Deschinny Jr is a senior EE with defense contractor Raytheon (Waltham, MA). At the Tucson, AZ facility of the company's Missile Systems business, he works on special equipment to support the testing of hardware for the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) program. This ground-based defense system is designed to destroy incoming enemy missiles.

"We have several different teams testing missiles to ensure that they work properly and hit their targets. The team I'm on has about twenty members," he says.

Deschinny grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Pine Springs, AZ. A Navajo Nation scholarship and the support of his large family helped get him through Arizona State University to his 1988 BS in EE technology. After graduation he worked for Navajo Communications (St. Michaels, AZ) as a central office engineer.

The company provided telecom for the entire Navajo Reservation. "We upgraded the old electromechanical telephone switches, put in digital switches, and installed fiber optic cable and digital microwave radio between towns. Where the houses were too far apart for telephone lines we used radio equipment," he explains. In 1991 he became a senior transmission engineer with Alltel Corp (Walnut Creek, CA), continuing to install radio systems in rural areas.

As the cellular industry began to take off, Deschinny joined Contel Cellular (Nashville, TN) to put up cellular base stations in the Southeast. Then he moved to San Diego, CA to build cellular base stations for GTE Mobile Net (Atlanta, GA).

By 1999 the cell phone networks were mostly complete. Deschinny tested the waters at an AISES career fair, and wound up with a brand-new career as an EE at Raytheon.

It was Deschinny's father, a lawyer, who first sparked his interest in engineering. "My dad loved to fly and was fascinated by the technology, so I became interested, too. On the reservation a lot of things broke down and I fixed them, becoming confident about solving technical problems." In college he was influenced by his lab partners, who were all into communications; that sparked the first decade of his technical career.

Carrying on the traditions he was taught, Deschinny is teaching his three-year-old son to speak Navajo.

Navajo Tommie Lee: lean manufacturing at 3M
Tommie Lee.

Tommie Lee.

3M Company (St. Paul, MN) produces a huge variety of products for the office and consumer, display and graphics, electronics and other areas. Product manager Tommie Lee supervises forty-five people in the film plant. It's a complex task.

"I'm the overall manager of the film production plant," he explains. "I involve all my employees as a team."

Implementing lean manufacturing is also part of his job. "Right now we're doing something new, looking at inventories to improve material flow to the customer," he says.

Lee grew up in Shiprock, NM on the Navajo Reservation. He spent a year at Fort Wingate High School, a BIA boarding school, and liked it there: "It allowed me to focus and study," he says. "When I got back to Shiprock I had decided to become an engineer."

It wasn't easy. Lee's father never went to formal school and his mother stopped in grade school. "But they both encouraged me along the way. The finances weren't there, but I had scholarships and I knew I had to get A's to keep them. That really encouraged me to work hard."

Lee received his BSME from the University of Oklahoma in 1989 and started with 3M as a process engineer, working with products used for oil and chemical absorbance in labs and maintenance shops. In 1997 he became a process engineer in 3M's Valley, NB manufacturing plant. He went on to production supervisor and moved up to general supervisor of the safety department.

By 2003 Lee was a project engineer implementing process improvements. He was the Six Sigma black belt for the plant, then got trained in lean manufacturing.

Early this year Lee moved from Nebraska to Cottage Grove, MN and his current position. "Within 3M there's a lot of opportunity and I moved around as opportunities came up. I let them know my ultimate goal was to be a manufacturing director, and they've given me a lot of opportunities," he says.

Lee's wife is also a Navajo from Shiprock, but he met her at college in Oklahoma. They have three girls and a boy.

Lee is part of the Native American council at work and has been involved in mentoring high school students, talking about AISES programs that help the kids go on to college. He's also recruited some of them into 3M.

Lee was in his school's AISES chapter, and after graduation he served on the national board of directors and went on to chair the society for two years. He continues to be involved in AISES, and feels the society is improving the educational climate.

"AISES is working with students early to get them focused on technical careers, and also working with the tribes. Leaving home is an issue for many Natives, so AISES is trying to create more opportunities within the community. It's part of their strategic plan," he says.

Sioux Chris DeYoung is a tech architect with IBM
Chris DeYoung.

Chris DeYoung.

Chris DeYoung is a Linux tech architect with IBM (Armonk, NY). He sells and supports high-performance clusters and large-scale Linux solutions to suit the business needs of clients.

These are supercomputers. "They number-crunch algorithms that would have taken years to solve not long ago," DeYoung explains.

A member of IBM's federal sales team, DeYoung calls on the Department of Energy, tribes and casinos, among others. "My job entails going out and working with customers to determine business needs, then designing the technical solution," he says.

DeYoung was born in Rapid City, SD but adopted as an infant by a family in Minnesota, so he grew up far from his Native roots. "But I have a great interest in them," he says. "I helped with IBM's donation to the National Museum of the American Indian, where we updated an antiquated computer system. I did a lot of hardware and software design for that."

He's also been involved with Mount Edgecumbe High School (Sitka, AK), a high-tech boarding school for disadvantaged students, mostly Native, from rural Alaska. IBM has been helping the school for years, donating servers and student workstations and providing tech support and even team-teaching by company techies.

"Mount Edgecumbe tries to get the kids interested and involved in IT and perhaps started in technical careers. I worked on hardware design for the school's IBM BladeCenter installation. They're going to be running terminal servers off the BladeCenter solution for students to use."

DeYoung is also a member of the IBM Native Diversity Network (INDN) and handles a lot of the group's technology requirements.

After high school, DeYoung attended the Rochester Technical Institute (Rochester, MN), completing a degree in welding in 1987. Then he joined the Army, where he first got interested in IT. From 1987 to 2002 he was a battalion communications chief, responsible for all data and voice equipment for a 180-soldier unit.

"I found I had a knack for technology and enjoyed working with it," he says. He attended Rochester Community College (Rochester, MN) from 1993 to 1995, and then began as a systems engineer II and Unix admin for Response, Inc (Rochester, MN).

In 1999 he became CTO at Fusion Solutions (Rochester, MN), working with sales and marketing to determine the best technical solutions for clients. He joined IBM as an IT architect in 2001.

Over the years, DeYoung has received certification as a Novell admin, Microsoft professional + Internet, Microsoft systems engineer and Microsoft trainer, and has taken accelerated training for NT 4.0. He's a founding member of the Rochester Linux users group and was its first president in 1999.

He's hoping to steer his son and daughter toward technical careers.


Laurel McKee Ranger is a freelance business writer headquartered in Randolph, NJ.

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