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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 1, 2001 - Issue 50


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From Cola to Space

story and photo by Nathan J. Tohtsoni-The Navajo Times-November 21, 2001
High school students from the Winslow Residential Hall add their comments to a sign-in board, which asked participants what they know about AISES' history.

ALBUQUERQUE - As a self-described rez girl, Arizona State University senior Kristina Halona saw low-flying U.S. military airplanes over her small reservation community as inspiration, rather than a nuisance.

Halona, an aerospace engineering major, has aspirations of working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and ultimately would like to walk in space as the first Navajo astronaut.

Attending the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) national conference for the sixth time, and second as the AISES' national student representative, Halona grew up in awe of United States Air Force airplane sorties over her Sawmill, Ariz., home.

Currently residing in Phoenix, Halona treasures her visits home more than ever because she can actually see the night stars - and breathe fresh air.

"I was just a dirty little rez girl playing in the dirt, drinking my Shasta Cola when the planes would fly really low and really slow," she said, laughing. "I always thought it was so cool. After that I lived for airplanes and then after that, it was space and it's grown from there."

Making contacts

Halona completed an internship with the Federal Aviation Administration this past summer in Washington, D.C. She worked alongside aerospace engineers who built airplanes.

"It was a really good experience," she said. "A lot of the contacts that I've made have been through AISES."

One contact she's made as a member of the board of directors has been fellow board member and astronaut John Herrington. Herrington (Chickasaw) will become the first Native American to go into space in August aboard the "Endeavour" Space Shuttle.

AISES held its 23rd annual national conference at the Albuquerque Convention Center from Nov. 15-18. AISES provides educational programs like internships and scholarships for college and high school students who are pursuing business, engineering, science and other academic areas.

"I attended my first conference in 1983," said AISES board of director chairman-elect Robert Whitman, of Church Rock, N.M. "It was a very small conference. The whole thing could have fit into one of these conference rooms. Now it's at the point where we've grown so much."

Approximately 2,000 students and professionals from across the country met in Albuquerque, the organization's national headquarters, for workshops and a job fair. Aspiring technical students were able to listen and meet professional Native Americans in their respective fields of study.

Whitman, a professor at the University of Denver, wants to strengthen the mentor program giving more professionals an opportunity to share their experiences with students.

Success using traditions

Marlene Platero-AllRunner, a research scientist at Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing in Tucson, Ariz., serves as a mentor for students at the University of Arizona. She conducted a workshop on how tribes can establish high-tech businesses through capital investors.

Advanced Ceramics is a joint venture enterprise between Tohono O'odham tribal members and an outside firm.

Platero-AllRunner, half Taos Pueblo and half Navajo from the Canoncito Band of Navajos, is an example of a high school and college student who benefited from AISES. She received a bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and a master's degree from Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

"It's kept me on the road to succeed. It helped me to use my traditions," she said of the organization.

Platero-AllRunner first came to an AISES conference as a seventh grader. Thirteen years later, she was standing in front of students who were much like she was in high school and college.

The one problem she saw was that once she graduated with the material science and engineering degrees, neither of her tribes were able to hire her because she was overqualified for jobs on the reservation.

"Being a woman in a traditional government, who would hire me?" she rhetorically asked. "There weren't many native women in my programs and at MIT, there were only two of us in the entire undergrad and graduate program."

By offering internships to the U.S. departments of Commerce and Transportation in Washington and the National Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, AISES Higher Education Program Manager Shirley LaCourse wants to see more students enter fields that traditionally have few Native Americans.

"There's a lot here that can be used for personal development and also career development," she said.

Mixing recruiters, students

The AISES conference provides that interaction of professionals and students as well as bringing in companies who perform mock interviews. More than 170 technical companies and universities also made recruiting trips to the job fair.

There are over 150 college chapters across the country and countless high school programs that send students to the national conference. But there are only 180 scholarships and 21 internships that AISES can offer because of limited funds, LaCourse said.

Four students received the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's $5,000 scholarship this year. In addition, 20 students received a $2,500 scholarship from Burlington Northern Santa Fe, 34 received a $2,000 scholarship from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and 130, including some who received double scholarships, got a $1,000 undergraduate and $2,000 graduate scholarship from AISES, which drew its funds from 24 different sources.

Ty Smith, of Upper Fruitland, N.M., is project coordinator for the Colorado Alliance for Minority Participation in Fort Collins, Colo.

He was on hand informing students about the program, which works with 12 Colorado colleges and Dine' College in Shiprock to help students transfer to a technical research institute in Colorado, like Colorado State in Fort Collins, Fort Lewis College in Durango or the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Since Halona sits on the board of directors as a nonvoting member, she was able to interact easily between the students and staff. She appreciated the turnout.

There was talk of canceling the conference after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, AISES Executive Director Everett Chavez said the organization would not bow to fear.

"We didn't want to allow fear to be a factor whether we moved on or not," Chavez (Santo Domingo Pueblo) said. "In our culture, we're taught to move on. Despite the tragedies we experienced, as a people, AISES couldn't afford to let the recent tragedies affect us in that way."

The 2002 national conference will be held in Tulsa, Okla. Applications for next year's scholarships can be accessed at

American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES)


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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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