UNM Rainforest Innovations

Sandra Begay, Chair of the UNM Rainforest Innovations Board of Directors, has been featured in an article by the Albuquerque Journal exploring her journey of persistence, growth, healing, and overcoming imposter syndrome that led to her impressive and impactful career supporting American Indian tribes.

Sandra serves as the lead staffer for Sandia National Laboratories for a program that assists American Indian tribes with renewable energy developments. To date, she has worked with 20 tribes across the country to help them develop 10-year vision, strategy, and action plans. Additionally, she initiated the Sandia-DOE (Department of Energy) Indian Energy Internship Program for American Indian students where she has mentored 50 students studying engineering, energy, and the environment. More recently, she joined the prestigious advisory council of Stanford University’s Doerr School of Sustainability to accelerate its mission of learning more about the earth, climate and society and generating sustainability solutions.

Learn about her story in Ollie Reed Jr.’s February 4 article, “All charged up: Sandia Labs engineer uses renewable-energy development to make future brighter for American Indian tribes,” on the Albuquerque Journal website reposted below and here: https://www.abqjournal.com/news/all-charged-up-sandia-labs-engineer-uses-renewable-energy-development-to-make-future-brighter-for/article_3c378e74-c137-11ee-a5a5-4b71d7528ba1.html

All charged up: Sandia Labs engineer uses renewable-energy development to make future brighter for American Indian tribes

By Ollie Reed Jr./ Journal Staff Writer

February 4, 2024

For several days this week Sandra Begay will be with the Nooksack, a small, American Indian tribe in northwest Washington state, about 12 miles south of the Canadian border.

“I’ll tell them that the world for their tribe, for their kids, will be better if they are generating their own energy,” Begay said during an interview at her northeast Albuquerque townhouse. “We can talk about solar panels. Sustainable energy can save money they could use to buy computers for their children.”

Begay, 60, who is Diné (Navajo), works for Sandia National Laboratories as the labs’ lead staffer in a program that assists American Indian tribes with renewable energy developments.

In the last 22 years, she has worked with 20 tribes across the country, from Acoma Pueblo and the Crow Nation to the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and the White Mountain Apache.

“The big focus is on strategic energy planning,” said Begay, who has degrees in civil and and structural engineering.  “We go to tribes all across the country and help them look for a 10-year vision, strategies and action plans.”

That’s enough to keep anyone busy and on the go. 

But recently, she took on additional responsibilities when she joined the advisory council of Stanford (University’s) Doerr School of Sustainability, a prestigious 20-person panel whose members include Microsoft founder Bill Gates and former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

That’s pretty heady company for someone like Begay, who despite her accomplishments, struggled with self-confidence issues when she was younger.

“I think I’m over that hurdle,” she said. “The way to prove that was just saying yes when I was asked to join the council. I feel like I deserve to be there because I worked really hard to be where I am.”

The goal of the advisory council, which meets twice a year, is to focus its combined expertise on helping the Doerr School accelerate its mission of learning more about the earth, climate and society and generating sustainability solutions.

Begay attended both council meetings held to date, in the summer and fall of 2023.

“We start with a dinner the night before the meeting,” she said. “It is very informal. We discuss what we want to consider the next day. How are we going to help people survive extreme heat, extreme cold? Icebergs melting, oceans rising.

“I’m not familiar with the effect of climate change on oceans, so I’m always listening.”

Pretty analytical

Begay grew up in Gallup, the daughter of Edward T. Begay, who served as vice chairman and, later, speaker of the Navajo Nation, and Cecilia Damon Begay, who was an Indian Health Service nurse for 30 years. Her older sister, Sharlene Begay-Platero, is the Industrial Development Representative for the Navajo Nation. 

“I lived in Gallup when I was young, but my dad was a tribal council member for Church Rock, so I was on the reservation most Sundays, playing in the dirt,” Begay said. “Most of my dad’s family still lives in those canyons off of Red Rock Park.”

She attended 12 years of classes at Rehoboth (New Mexico) Christian School, near Gallup. Her parents had been sweethearts when they were students at  the school, which was founded by the Christian Reformed Church in 1903 as Rehoboth Mission School.

Begay recalls visiting with her first-grade teacher years after graduating from Rehoboth Christian High School.

“She told me, ‘You used to sit quietly, do all your work and when you were done, you’d come up and ask for more work,'” Begay said. “I finally figured out I’m pretty analytical, pretty introverted. I’m quiet, but like a sponge. In school, it was ‘How do I solve problems?'”

Begay did play briefly for the school basketball team.

“My mom wanted me to get more exercise,” she said. “But every time I fouled someone, I’d say, ‘I’m sorry.'”

Told she was not supposed to be apologizing for fouls, Begay decided basketball was not for her and became a cheerleader instead.

“That went against my introverted nature,” she said. “But I can be loud now when I want. I can show emotion, even though I’m usually very stoic. And I can be a cheerleader for people when I need to be.”

Just me

Begay said when she was in fourth grade, a teacher asked her what she wanted to do, and she said she wanted to be an architect — until she found out architects did a lot of rendering. She doesn’t consider artistic endeavors to be among her strong suits.

“There’s this stereotype that all Native Americans are artistic, but I proved that wrong,” she said.

So, her teacher suggested she might want to be an engineer. He told her engineers worked with architects, that engineers made sure buildings did not fall down. Begay liked the sound of that.

After finishing at  Rehoboth Christian, she went to Calvin College (now Calvin University), a Christian Reformed Church institution in Grand Rapids, Michigan, because her best friend was going there and because Begay’s parents had also attended the college. But it turned out not to be a good fit for her.

“My friend was a 6-foot, blond girl,” Begay said. “I couldn’t find her on campus. She blended in. But she could pick me out because I was the only one like me there. I got along with some Nigerians who were soccer players because we were all homesick and didn’t like the food. My mom was always at me. ‘This is what you wanted to do. You’ve got to stick with it.'”

But she only lasted one semester at Calvin, before coming home and enrolling at the University of New Mexico.

“I needed my family to get through engineering school,” she said. “I went to UNM-Gallup for two years. I took every class I could take there and then transferred to UNM’s main campus. I needed to find my self-confidence. I had lost it in Michigan.”

Need to heal

After earning a bachelor of science in civil engineering at UNM in 1987, she worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in California before pursuing a master’s degree at Stanford. Mindful of the alienation she had experienced at Calvin, she selected Stanford in part because it had a pronounced American Indian community. That, however, turned out to be of little comfort.

“My studies were so intense, I did not have a chance to interact with that community,” she said. “And I was the only woman of color in a male-dominated engineering department. I felt isolated, alone. I struggled.”

But this time she persisted.

“I had a full fellowship,” she said. “I had to finish. Stanford is one of the top three structural engineering schools. I did want that challenge. But I had to remember who I am and that I will always be unique in situations.”

She left Stanford in 1991 with a master’s of science in structural engineering with an emphasis on earthquake engineering. 

But when asked by Arun Majumdar, dean of Stanford’s Doerr School, to join the advisory council, she was hesitant.

“I told him my graduate experience at Stanford had not been the best,” Begay said. “I told him, ‘If I come here, it is to heal.'”

And that’s what she’s been doing.

“Each (council) meeting I feel like I am valued and that I have something to contribute,” Begay said. “The first dinner we had together, Condoleezza Rice was sitting at the head of the table. I was talking about something and she said, ‘Sandra, that’s a really good point. I’m glad you said that.’ It touched me that she affirmed that I had said something worthwhile. I didn’t know I needed that, but it felt really good.”

 She was invited to speak at the university during Indigenous Day last year.

“I gave six lectures in two days, to undergraduate and graduate, Native and non-Native, energy and engineering students,” Begay said.

One of the things she spoke about was the impostor syndrome — the feeling you should not be where you are, that someone just let you in.

“I think that’s one of the things that made me so stressed out when I was a student at Stanford,” she said. “Stanford is such a prestigious school, anyone might feel they’re not good enough to be there. I reassured the students that they do belong, that they should do their best.  A lot of them came up to me afterwards to thank me, to tell me that’s how they had been feeling.”

Building leaders

After Stanford, Begay worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory before going to Sandia in 1992. Except for taking a year’s leave of absence in 2019 to serve as director of the city of Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department, she has been at Sandia ever since.

In 2001, she initiated the Sandia-DOE (Department of Energy) Indian Energy Internship Program for American Indian students studying engineering, energy and the environment. She has mentored 50 students in that program.

One of these is Tommy Jones, now based in Colorado as a deployment specialist with the DOE Office of Indian Energy. He provides tribes with financial assistance, technical assistance and education and outreach on energy matters. He often works with Begay.

“I was with her last week and the week before,” he said during a phone interview.

But he met Begay when he was part of her intern program from 2014 to 2016.

Jones’ Native heritage is part Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and part Naknek Native Village-Alaska. He grew up in Jones, Oklahoma.

“My father used to joke that the town was named after him,” he said.

Jones said he became interested in energy early on.

“There were times in my childhood when I grew up without running water and electricity,” he said. “I didn’t want other kids to grow up the way I did. I wanted to make a difference. It’s not fun when you don’t have electricity and it’s cold.”

Jones earned separate bachelor degrees in biology and Spanish from Oklahoma City University, a master’s in tropical conservation biology and environmental science from the University of Hawaii at Hilo and a doctorate in natural resources and American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona.

He credits, however, his intern years with Begay as pivotal in his professional development.

“She was instrumental in creating a program in which (interns) did not just hear about energy development on tribal lands in a classroom, but got to go out to hear from and see the people doing the work,” he said. “She really wants the students to make the most of the experience. Not just writing papers, but understanding the challenges so we can come out of the program prepared to help.

“The support she provides is unparalleled. She builds leaders.”

More to do

Begay’s childhood home in Gallup had electricity and running water, but the homes of her relatives on the reservation did not.

Her work on the Navajo Reservation has made solar-powered electricity available to many more than 500 residences, and large solar plants or farms on the reservation are generating energy there as well as surplus energy that can be sold to cities such as Phoenix; Tucson; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Los Angeles.

But there are still 13,000 homes on the Navajo Reservation without electricity.

“I think I have made a difference on the Navajo Reservation and for many other tribes that have participated in strategic energy planning,” Begay said. “But there’s a lot more to do.”

The Nooksack tribe she will be visiting this week is just getting started.

“They have one building with solar, but they want to do more,” Begay say. “I’ll be doing a lot of listening and documenting.”

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