American Indian Science and Engineering Society
Executive Director Emerita
American Indian Science and Engineering Society
The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) has a lot of similarities with the other programs presented here, such as accessibility to students, a magazine, scholarship support, and support from corporations. But as an organization that is mostly student-based, we focus a good deal on American Indian communities. Part of our approach is to instill students as soon as they arrive in college with the idea that they are unique, that they have the potential to be leaders in their communities because there are so few of them in the university system, and that they have an obligation to show leadership, as well as to give back to their communities. Our focus is on increasing the population of American Indians who want to go into science and engineering careers. I am a product of that approach.
Today, I will tell you about my personal experience, as well as about my experience organizing, fund raising, and talking to corporations and government agencies on behalf of AISES. My perspective is based on my experience running the organization for two years. I have been with the AISES organization since 1983, so I understand it from the grass roots up, from a student perspective as well as from a leadership perspective. The unique thing about AISES is that it represents a diversity among American Indians. Most people think there are typical characteristics of American Indians, and there may be a few. But with more than 500 different tribes in the United States, there are also great differences. Knowing that from the onset will help you avoid saying, no, I thought American Indians were like this or like that. Mostly, people’s ideas are based on old Western movies. It is a little sad to know that, even in this day and age, people have a perspective of American Indians from television and the movies, but that is the truth of it.
I like to tell a joke about one of our students who is of the Mohican nation out of New York state. He gave a little talk about who he was at a student forum, and a fellow American Indian student got up and said, “God, I thought all of you guys were dead.” Where do you think he got that? From “The Last of the Mohicans.” Even the students themselves have some misperceptions about American Indian culture. So, a lot of educating needs to be done for people to understand the issues.
As you go from region to region, you find some similarities among the tribes, and I will highlight some commonalities that relate to recruitment and retention. I can’t talk too much about advancement because I haven’t found an American Indian scientist or engineer in an executive or top management position yet. I am still looking though, and when we track that person down, we will certainly highlight his or her accomplishments. For now, I will talk about role modeling instead of advancement.
Because AISES has been involved in these issues since the eighties, I have seen a lot of recruiting strategies that have worked. One of the keys to success is consistency. If students see you or someone from your company as a recruiter, and they see you year after year, they begin to know who you are. That is how I was recruited for every job I have had. I knew the recruiters who attended those meetings, and they were very cordial. At first, I might not have been interested in their companies, but they took the time to find out about me. And when I was ready to be hired, I found some time to find out about them.
That is a principle we instill in our students. Know who you are going to work for. Find out how they will support you once you get into the company because retention is a big, big challenge. Consistency and getting to know our students are big factors in successful recruiting. After trying to nurture professionals and watching a handful out there practicing and working since the early eighties, I’ve learned that it takes a long time to “grow” a person like myself. We are very careful about who we allow to recruit our kids, and we take a very maternalistic, maybe paternalistic, role.
Because there are so few American Indian students, we want them to have the best opportunities. We try to teach them to decide what they want, where they are going, what type of work they will do on the job site, but also to make sure that there will be a nurturing environment so they won’t get lost or feel left out. In truth, they are the minority of minorities, and that is a fact they have to live with. And we tell them that. We are very frank with them. For example, a student might be the only American Indian out of 8,000 employees. He or she might have to be an advocate for American Indian issues, answering the goofy questions that come up, like “The Last of the Mohicans.”
We prepare our students for the career fairs by informing them where companies are coming from to offer them jobs. We also educate companies to be mindful that when they hire an AISES student they should be aware that the pool is small. The newly hired AISES student will then have an obligation to try to
inspire another American Indian young person to follow in this path of education. We deliberately instill the notion of giving back to the community, that once a person is successful and has secured a nice job, he or she has an obligation to find a way to support another student.
When the students come to an interview, they will have a lot of questions. How can they be a part of the community? What kind of outreach programs do you have? Can they participate in community projects? It may be a mistake in how I have managed my own career, but I have made it clear that I consider this a part of my job. I have told prospective employers I won’t be able to do the best job for their companies otherwise. I have to give back to the community. If you hear that common theme, you will recognize it as something we’ve worked very hard to instill in these students.
When you talk about the retention of American Indians, you must remember that these students have left their homes and their families, that they may have lived their whole lives in rural, isolated circumstances, sometimes on a reservation. Remember, they need to maintain a family connection. We also encourage affinity groups and networking, which can help them feel they are a part of a group.
Two companies in particular have done this extremely well—both Lucent Technologies, which has the Lucent United Native Americans (LUNA) Group, and IBM Corporation, which also has a very strong affinity group. These two groups actually have conventions at different places in the country to bring Native American employees together once a year. That is a very innovative idea. At Sandia Labs, where I come from, there are 200 of us, and we are a pretty tight-knit group; that is an important factor in retention.
Another aspect of managing diversity is promoting minority employees who have done well or who are doing outstanding jobs. In some American Indian tribes, it is not a natural tendency to boast about your accomplishments. It is a learned skill. We try to remind students that for people to acknowledge your work, you have to talk about yourself, which is sometimes difficult. You don’t have to boast about your own work, but you should be able to talk about your accomplishments. To be promoted, your job evaluation will be looked at to see how well you have done. The students have to know that that is something to expect, so coaching them can be very helpful.
If you can help them understand the culture of your company, it will help them understand how they can participate. On the other side of the coin, you also have to do your homework because there are things you should understand about their culture, like which tribe they belong to. They are not just American Indians—each individual belongs to a specific tribe. They may want to travel back to their homes for certain occasions, for example.
When we talk about advancement, the only thing I can highlight is, on a national front, that some American Indians are pushing the bounds of science and engineering. You should know who they are. In fact, one American Indian
engineer, John Herrington, will be going up into space in August of 2002. He will be the first Native American to go into space. You should know his name because he is the only one. We have deliberately included him on our board of directors, where he can become a visible role model and mentor with a platform from which to talk about his work and the issues facing American Indian students.
Part of my job as executive director of AISES was to talk about issues in the workplace to make sure students understand the decisions before them. When we talk about role models and mentors, we are not talking about them in a generic sense. We want them to share real experiences and real difficulties. Take my friend who worked at IBM who had very long hair. He lost a relative. In his tribe when you lose a relative, you cut your hair short. The talk among his colleagues was, oh, you cut your hair to conform to IBM, when, in fact, he had made a very personal choice to show he was in mourning for the loss of a family member. So, you see, some of the issues students have to deal with have to do with their tribal cultures. They have to balance them with doing the work they have been hired to do.
The last thing I will leave you with is to tell you there is a huge national network for the groups represented on this panel to work together. Over the years, we have tried to keep dialogues going by participating in panels like this where we can talk about our differences. But there are also some nice common threads running through all of these organizations. We are here to help you, as representatives of industries and universities, understand more about the minority and women students and professionals who want to enter the workplace.