ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sandra Begay has mentored more than three dozen young Native Americans through the energy program she created, so don’t tell her you can’t find qualified people to install solar on the reservation.
“We have had 42 interns who are now professionals, ready to work for you – renewable, tribal, they’re there,” says Begay, a researcher and engineer at Sandia National Laboratories. “I groomed ’em and I kicked ’em out the door to go forth, do good. Don’t tell me you can’t find them.”
Although she says the numbers are “not enough,” she considers it a “big legacy” to have bolstered the ranks of women and Native Americans in STEM professions – everything from teaching at the college level to “nonprofit leadership serving off-grid tribal communities.”
She’s done it for a simple reason: “I’ve been successful in what I’ve been wanting to do because I’ve been able to get unique positions. I just can’t be the only one.”
Begay has been spending the past 16 years providing technical assistance to tribes across the country. She also took a leave of absence to temporarily head Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department in 2019.
She created the Indian Energy Program for Sandia and the Department of Energy, and is now serving a term as a University of New Mexico regent.
The daughter of a public nurse and a former tribal leader – Edward T. Begay, vice chair of the Navajo Nation Council – the longtime Sandia engineer is an introvert who says she’s been doing just fine working from home and dealing with the pandemic.
But that doesn’t mean she can’t wait to return to her happy place: Disneyland, with her nieces and nephews and a big turkey leg each.
“Also, I love roller coasters,” she says. “We do a lot of screaming.”
Did you always want to be an engineer?
“We’ve got to go way back to when I was a little girl. Engineering is solving problems, trying to meet a challenge where there’s something that’s not working … and so I think my first idea of how to think differently – and maybe you could call it becoming analytical – (was when) I was in a boarding school outside of Gallup. We took a shower every day, I had long black hair, and I would have to march from the dorm building outside to the dining hall. And of course, I didn’t care for that. I thought, ‘Well you can not care about a lot of things, but what are you going to do to solve it?’ And my thoughts went to a trip to California and Disneyland. ‘We need a monorail at this school and that would solve the problem.’ That was my first thought. The girl with the crazy ideas. I think I was about 10.”
Especially when you were younger, was it difficult to be in a field with so few minority women?
“Exactly right. By yourself. I think I gained a lot of strength from my mentors. But it was an adjustment for me. Navajo is a matriarchal society, and my mother was our matriarch. So I learned what does it mean to be a strong woman, and I found it highly unusual that the rest of the world was patriarchal. It just seems natural that if a woman knows what needs to be done, you just say it, but in the work world … there were all these things I had to learn that were totally different than how I grew up. But I’ve learned to adapt to that. I’ll be quiet to a point until I have something to say, and then I will say it. But I’ll think before I say it.”
What do you do in your free time?
“I love to sew. I loved, before the pandemic, to go to movies. I think so much and I’m so analytical, I’ve got to get my brain to let go of things at work, so I immerse myself in a movie. Science fiction, because they have such unusual plots. I was a fan of ‘The X-Files,’ and there was one episode where Fox Mulder found a Navajo shaman medicine man to help solve this mysterious problem, and they were able to save the world. That’s my favorite episode – ever.”
Tell me something about you that few people know.
“I think that I’m just more amiable than people really understand. Just like on Valentine’s Day. I can’t always get a Christmas card out, but I will try the next holiday to communicate with my friends and family. So I sent out hard copy Valentine’s Day cards and then did virtual ones all day … just to let people know I was thinking about them and that I’m still alive, even though you haven’t heard from me in awhile. Just to send a little bit of love. Someday you might think I’ve not thought of you, but you’ll get a Valentine from me.”
What are your pet peeves?
“A real pet peeve is being disrespected. Because of assumptions of this or that, and you really underestimate me. That to me is disrespectful. And I think the other is – many women have this – where you say something and it’s not heard, and then somebody else says the same thing and the group hears it. That drives me nuts.”
Do you have any favorite foods?
“I love tacos. I love mutton stew, fry bread. I don’t eat it very often, but I love it. And my favorite snack is popcorn. It goes with the movies, right?”
What personal qualities have made you successful?
“I think I’m strong in who I am. I know where I come from. I believe I am able to articulate what it took to get my education, and it was not easy. I can tell you specific roadblocks to overcome, and people want to know that from a national standpoint because (there are) too few Native women engineers. The other thing is I adore being called a nerd. I used to carry a mechanical pencil. I had my calculator with me in my purse. In some circumstances, people don’t think that’s cool. And I have to say, I just think it’s the coolest thing ever. I love being a nerd because I worked hard to be this kind of nerd.”
What makes you happy?
“Having a good night’s sleep makes me very happy. And thinking beyond the pandemic. I think we have to focus on what we do right now, but I can see what will happen once things are settled down, and then the sky’s the limit. It doesn’t mean I’m giving up the rigor that you have to have right now. But after that, man, I’ve got Southwest points to use.”