Dream big with AISES award winners

Indian Country Today

On today's show we have four individuals sharing their awards and inspiring stories that led them to where they are today, 2020 American Indian Science and Engineering Society Award winners

Do you remember being a child and dreaming of what you wanted to be when you grew up? For some those childhood dreams become reality. And today they are not just professionals, they are winning awards in their chosen careers each year. The American Indian Science and Engineering Society honors professionals who are doing outstanding work. Each at one time was a child with a dream. 

On today's show we have four of the six AISES 2020 Award winners including Tulsa Pier Drilling's Cara Cowen Watts, PhD, Boeing's Kathleen Jolivette, U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Frances Dupris, and patent holder on supersonic flight deck technology, Laura Smith-Velazquez. For a list of all AISES awardees, visit the organization's website. 

Frances Dupris, AISES Blazing Flame Awardee

“The blazing flame award is presented to an individual who blazes a path for Native Americans and STEM crews. This award recognizes individuals with 10 plus years of professional experience with significant accomplishments in advancing STEM education and careers.”

“My family is large. So as a young child and adolescent, I had so much family around, so many cousins, so many cousins, barely had room for friends. My stepmother … Sorry, I knew I didn't want to get emotional talking about them. They played a huge role in my upbringing for sure. So when you talk about mentors, when I was a child, they were definitely a good support system.”

“After high school, I joined the Air Force and talk about mentors in the military, so many to count for sure. There's definitely a leadership in the Air Force and I'm grateful for being part of the United States Air Force for 19 years and how I tried to give that back because I'm still gaining knowledge and wisdom from others."

"Without working with the National Security Agency, I probably wouldn't have known about AISES because we became sponsors, I wanna say years ago. Engaging with the students is like one of the most wonderful experiences that I've had and I still try to mentor them along the way."

“Take on opportunities, take risks, do what you're passionate about, what you love to do. Don't give up, don't give up. You can be that voice. You can be the Indigenous leadership now and in the future and make changes.”

Cara Cowen Watts, PhD, AISES Ely S. Parker Awardee

“Parker was the Chief of the Seneca, and a Union Army General, in particular for AISES, this is the highest award or honor bestowed by AISES and he was one of our first recognized American Indian scientist-engineers.”

“I'm a complete 80s child, so I watched a lot of trucker movies. I actually wanted to be a trucker, I remember that. And then I wanted to be a vet and I wanted to be a doctor, but I couldn't deal with the real life idea that I would have to tell anyone that a being passed away. And so that ended up leading me to science or STEM in particular engineering.

"AISES has been integral to my life. In high school, I grew up in the Seminole nation, not in the Cherokee nation. And there were a lot of people from a community leadership perspective, from a tribal leadership perspective, people that encouraged me, but not in STEM." 

"It was later in life at Oklahoma State University that I found AISES and fell in love. I mean, that is absolutely my community. So every year coming to that, but on campus every day, that's where I got my energy and my leadership skills as a STEM person, not just for our tribal communities, but in the broader context of these big companies and all that."

"So AISES for me has been where my mentors have typically come from such as Mary Golda Ross. Those people that were very early, the founders of AISES, the former executive directors, the current executive director and then also we had the Wilma Mankiller in our own community, even though she's not as STEM person, chief Chad Smith who also wasn't a STEM person, but they helped me provide the leadership example that I needed, not only for what I do out in the community or AISES or in our tribal communities, but here at work. They showed what it was like to be an executive to manage employees and value them because they're part of your family.”

“It's so exciting because after you serve for 12 years on tribal council and Cherokee nation or Indian country, like I did, we talk about economic development. You know, we make all sorts of smoke and mirrors and everyone gets to claim they've done this, but to actually create jobs and to develop employees and pay them what you hope is better than what others pay and bring benefits to the table without gaming dollars. It is truly rewarding. And we get to build America's infrastructure."

“I would pass on what others have told me. Never let anyone say you can't do it and just dig in. If you want to be an astronaut, if you want to be a bridge builder, whatever those things are, go find the experts in it, go dig in and make it happen. Don't expect it to happen to you, go learn how to do it and do the hard work that it takes to become the best at whatever you want to be. If that's underwater basket weaving, make it that.”

Laura Smith-Velazquez, AISES Technical Excellence Awardee

“So ever since I was a kid I think I was eight years old, I was big into science fiction movies, watching Star Trek with my grandmother and the Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern series where they colonize another planet. I spent a lot of time actually on the telescope looking up at the stars. And so for me, I grew up with the Cherokee stories of the Milky Way. I don't know if you've ever heard those stories, but they're wonderful. And it really was beautiful to watch it laid out like a river of stars. And that was my first inkling that I wanted to explore the galaxy and I wanted to be an engineer and astronaut and a pilot. Now, I'm an engineer and I'm a pilot and I've gotten far enough to be an astronaut candidate.”

“I'm a 20 questions girl and I'm the first person to graduate high school in my family, but I was lucky enough that my father decided to go back to school and get his GED and become an anthropologist. He had all six of us kids, we all chipped in to help him get through college. And so that kind of led me to that first aspect of ‘how’ and then trying to figure out what an astronaut is, what are the best chances to become an astronaut. And I really wanted to be naval aviator and go into the military, but there were only four female pilots at that time. Women weren't open to combat, so it wasn't a way that I could go. So I started looking at civilian pilots and then I discovered Mary Golda Ross. And I was really excited. So I said, okay, that's the path I want to go."

"So a little exploration, a big leap too, because we didn't have a lot of money. My mom literally took me to the dollar store with a duffel bag and we bought what I might need for college, gave me 20 bucks, and then I found my own way from Michigan to Florida. I got my own full-time job and worked hard.”

“I'm a human factors and systems engineer. So pretty much my degree applies to just about any field. So I designed an air traffic control system, I designed unmanned systems for the army, I did shadow, I've gotten to design flight deck avionics.”

“Now, I take all that engineering experience and all those different domains and I get to do research and technology development. So I get to break down technology barriers to make really neat things happen. And so now I'm doing that in autonomy and supersonics, and just being able to apply all my expertise that I've learned in the past, going forward and creating new ideas and new things that will help people in our environment and everything. So I just asked the question, like, why can't we do that? Well, let's figure it out.”

“Don't be afraid to be different. Have the courage to be yourself and do what you're really passionate and excited about. You don't have to know everything, but you can learn it. And then also don't be afraid to take risks and break down those barriers. Have confidence in yourself and know that you'll find a way because you can do it.”

Kathleen Jolivette, AISES Professional of the Year Awardee

“My mother was a nurse and so that was sort of what I thought I was going to end up doing. And when I got into high school, I realized it really wasn't a passion of mine. So you know, school wasn't really a big priority. So I just joined the army out of high school. Went in the army, loved it and really enjoyed it. And then when I got out, worked for a couple of small companies, but ended up going back to school, getting my degree in accounting and then ended up at Boeing lucky for me.”

“One of my dreams to be working for a company like Boeing and to be in this position today, but through some really hard work and just flexibility willing to go anywhere, anytime, wherever they need me is what it really came down to.”

“I mentor folks all the time who are very set in a five-year plan or a ten-year plan and anything out of that sort of range is scary, but I've always been wide open to, 'send me where you need me.' This is my fourth site at Boeing. So I've been to St. Louis, Philadelphia, Huntsville, Alabama, and now Mesa, Arizona. And I think that's just been a big piece in getting that, maybe it's from the military that I got that flexibility of being open to new opportunities.”

“I think part of our culture too, the tie to family is so important to us that it's hard even to leave, to go to school in the first place. And so thinking beyond that is definitely really difficult for some folks, but, you know, just knowing that you can grow up to be someone you never imagined and can go places you never imagined is really awesome.”

“I recommend students being flexible, being open, don't be so rigid. And it's going to be scary when you start on these new jobs and opportunities, but the learning and the people piece of it is really great.”

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Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is executive producer of Indian Country Today. She is also the anchor of the weekday newscast. Follow her on Twitter: @WiteSpider. 

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