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AISES Conference expected to bring 2,000 to Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland will host approximately 2,000 students and professionals for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s annual conference. Themed “The Difference is You,” the three-day event consists of workshops, speakers, networking and career development.

“The conference definitely includes high school and college students, as well as professionals,” said Pamala Silas (Menomonee/Oneida), AISES CEO. “It’s a real family gathering of all ages, and participants often bring their family members.”

AISES’ mission is to increase the representation of American Indian and Alaska Natives in engineering, science and other technology disciplines. Through a variety of educational programs, the society offers financial, academic and cultural support to students from middle through graduate school, as well as professional development activities to enable teachers to work effectively with Native students. AISES also develops curricula and publications, builds partnerships with tribes, schools, other nonprofit organizations, corporations, foundations and government agencies.

“It’s an amazing gathering of brain power, but we also weave in a lot of cultural programming because AISES acts as a bridge between the technical disciplines and Indian cultures,” Silas said. AISES membership includes 2,800 individuals, 54 percent are college students and 46 percent are professionals. Members have earned more than 600 science, technology, engineering and mathematic degrees to date.

This year, the conference features several speakers and workshops geared to helping participants understand and access federal economic stimulus money, much of which is being funneled to projects through the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and Department of Labor. Especially of note is the emphasis on green industries and initiatives.

“The idea of green is so compatible with Native American culture – renewable energy, conservation, walking lighter on Mother Earth are our core values,” she said. “This huge investment in training and providing renewable energy is being made, and tribes are interested in conservation projects – restoring overgrazed lands, cleaning up water, etc. It’s a potential boon for Indian country.”

Especially exciting for Silas is the career networking and professional skill building aspect of the conference. The AISES conference holds the largest Alaska Natives and American Indian career fair in the country, with more than 200 employers. Here, conferees can learn what the latest sought-after skill sets are, new requirements for positions, and where industries are headed. For students and professionals, this is an opportunity to polish interview, leadership and speaking skills and make connections.

For professionals this year, AISES has partnered with UCLA’s Master of Business Administration program to present workshops on innovation and creative team building. This program also provides training for some of the same companies who will attend, like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

AISES is structured on an independent chapter system at 172 colleges and universities, among which are 23 tribal colleges. Because each chapter is self-supported, students must raise money to attend the event.

“We try to find hotels that are an affordable rate, and often students stay four to a room. They hold local fundraisers, and seek the support of local science and engineering companies,” Silas said. “Students come from all parts of the country for the event. Next year it will be in Albuquerque, where AISES is headquartered. It hasn’t been there since 2003 because the event travels to different parts of the country.”

A flavor of Portland, this year’s host city, will be shown in the cultural events that the conference also comprises. The local volunteer planning committee has a traditional powwow planned for Saturday evening as the closing activity. The opening ceremony Thursday evening will include student recognition and chapter of the year presentations. A Halloween party with costume contest will take place on Friday.

“There are also talking circles at the conference for men and women to express their feelings and concerns about going into these professions, traveling and working away from their families, and getting rejuvenated,” Silas said. The AISES Council of Elders – selected because they have a long history with AISES and are recognized in their own communities for their cultural knowledge – keep everyone grounded and centered in their values. They are available to students, to show them that even though it’s not easy to get through these highly technical degrees, or to live in an environment that may not be Native American friendly, they can do it.

“Native Americans are underrepresented in these fields, but our values are especially needed – our ethics, our value of family,” Silas said. “And tribes deserve the best possible people to help them in the future. You don’t get that by limiting opportunities or abilities.”

The event takes place Oct. 29 – 31 at the Oregon Convention Center.