• IDRA Newsletter • September 2004 • 

Excerpt from the IDRA publication, Minority Women in Science: Forging the Way

My family consists of my two children, ages 4 and 7, and my husband. My husband and I work for the same company, he works as a rolling stock mechanic at La Plata mine, and I am a mining engineer at Navajo mine. My dad is 86 years old and lives in Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation. My mom died when I was 6 years old, so my dad raised those of us who were still at home. Most of us went to boarding school, but my dad was the one we came home to for vacations and holidays. I have seven sisters who are all older than me and four brothers, two of whom are older and two are younger.

Since my dad was the primary person in my life, I can honestly say he was a great supporter of my going into engineering. Although he has had no formal education and does not understand English, he made sure I had whatever book I ever wanted when I was real young. He also constantly told me that I needed to learn the ways of the Anglo people and that I needed to learn them well enough to put them to my use. I am sure he gave the same advice to all my brothers and sisters so that whenever I needed any help along the way, my family was always supportive and willing to help me.

When I tried to get a job while in high school, I was asked if I knew how to type, work a cash register or anything else. That was when I realized I needed to obtain some kinds of skills in order to get a job. I decided I wanted to become a coal miner like my dad. Since my high school counselor always told me the easiest and fastest way to get a job was to get a degree, I decided to apply this thought toward getting a job in a coal mine. That is how I came to be an engineer.

I went to elementary school on the Navajo reservation in Arizona where we lived. After my mom died, we were sent to live at a boarding school nearby in Fort Defiance, Arizona. When that school closed, we were sent to live at another boarding school, this one in Albuquerque, New Mexico. So, from the fourth grade through high school, I went to the public boarding schools in Albuquerque. After high school graduation, I went to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, New Mexico, and got my bachelor of science degree in mining engineering.

I was so un-informed while in high school that I did not think any college would want me. My high school counselor convinced me I was college material. She was also the one who was my sounding board when things happened to me that I felt I could not handle. Since I did not realize until late in my high school career that I needed to go to college, I was not prepared to go into engineering. My first year of college I had to take all the basic classes (math, chemistry, physics) to get myself prepared for the engineering classes. To me the whole five years of college were fairly difficult, and I was very lucky to have smart friends who were willing to help me.

I think my junior high and high school teachers could have done a better job in getting me prepared. I had some very good teachers, but I also got bored in some of my classes. I was given the impression during most of my school years that I would not be able to go to college because I was an Indian, and “Indians do not go to college.” The other thing I did not realize was that there are scholarships out there for people like me (minorities). In fact, I was so naive that I thought I would personally have to pay for all of my college education.

While you are in elementary, junior high and high school, make it your goal to go to college. Do not worry too much about what it is you are going to major in, think about what you like to do (for example, do you like to talk to people, do you like to work alone, do you like math, do you like to write). Answer these questions about yourself and then find out what kind of jobs there are that would fit your style. Find people who do the type of work or have the type of career that interests you. Talk to these people and find out what they actually do while on the job and what they had to do to get their jobs (for example, college education, trade school). Most people are really willing to help, so never be afraid to ask for help or advice.

I do long-range planning for a large surface coal mining operation in northern New Mexico. The Navajo mine currently has three large draglines in operation for stripping dirt off the coal. BHP (the company I work for) recently bought a used dragline, and we are in the process of having it put together here on the mine site. Therefore, my current project is to find the most economical method of mining for the two machines that will be in operation once this dragline is up and running. Finding the most economical mining method requires looking at our reserves for all the mining areas on our lease. We then figure out what would be the best way to mine these areas to maintain the amount and grade of coal required from us for the power plant. After the best mining option is selected, we do detailed designs and plans on how the draglines will uncover each coal seam. We then determine the amount of time it would take to mine and to haul the coal out of each pit. From this figure, we can plan what the years ahead will look like for quality and quantity of coal for each year. We can simulate what the earth will look like after we finish mining, in order to plan for reclamation. We even determine what our staffing levels should be for the life of the mine. Almost all of this work is done on computers using various mine-modeling programs.

What I love most about my job is being able to design something and then see it actually created out in the field. I guess it is like seeing it done in your mind, then on the computer and then actually watching the equipment moving the dirt.

Some barriers I have encountered in the work place are that people, both men and women, do not seem to take me as seriously as they would one of my male counterparts. If the project involves more than one engineer, people always seem to think it is the other guy who did most of the work or came up with all the ideas. Since my father always told me it was not right to talk highly of yourself, it is very difficult for me to claim recognition for myself. To get up and say “I did that part of the project” is still very hard. In my heart and in my mind I know that I was the one responsible for the idea or the work, so the glory is not the most important thing to me. We all have our own consciences to live with. What matters most to me is to know I did the job and to feel good about my work.

The Navajo Nation in general has been supportive of my pursuit of science. I started college when the Navajo Nation was very vocal about the need for Navajo students to earn college degrees. The Navajo Nation still says we need the people with the degrees, but, in my opinion, it is no longer one of the highest priorities for the tribe. It needs to be higher on the list of priorities for the Navajo Nation, and more efforts need to be made to prepare Navajos for college and to keep them in college. This is essential for our personal survival and for the survival of our tribe.

There is still that perception that men are better at engineering and math than women. So no matter how much schooling women have had or what kind of degree we have, we still have to work twice as hard to get on even ground with the average Anglo male. This is especially true if you are a minority woman in a predominately male field. I am a determined person, and once I want to do something there is very little that anyone can do to make me change my mind. I have overcome most obstacles by telling myself, “This is what I want to do, so I’m going to do it.”

Whatever it is you want to accomplish, you will be able to do it with persistence and hard work. Do not hold back, do not be shy, do not be timid, do not set limits for yourself and do not let others tell you what they think your limits are. Prepare yourself so that you can use your knowledge to help yourself and your people.

I was the first mining engineer for the Navajo Nation. I have always tried to keep this as low-key as possible because being the first was not my goal when I started out. In fact, I have been many “firsts” along the way, and I felt it was more of a hindrance than a help for quite a while. I think the fact that I opened a door or two for many of my people is a greater accomplishment than being first. I have met some people who have told me they heard me speak many years ago and it gave them the push they needed for going into science or even going to college. These are the people that make me feel good about getting my degree and make me feel like I have done something to help them.

This story was reprinted from Minority Women in Science: Forging the Way – Student Workbook published by IDRA.

Mining Minerals in the Classroom

the process or act of using a mineral that has been mined.

  • inorganic: the quality of being composed of material other than plant or animal, belonging to the inanimate world.
  • lode: an ore deposit. It usually refers to a seam or vein of ore that will be mined as a unit.
  • mine: a spot or pit in the earth from which minerals can be taken.
  • mineral: an inorganic substance that is neither animal nor vegetable. Also a solid crystalline element or compound that results from an inorganic process of nature.
  • ore: the source from which a mineral can be taken (extracted). The mineral can be either metallic (gold) or non-metallic (sulfur).
  • reclamation: restoring a mine to beneficial use, facilitating the recovery of land that has been mined.
  • resource: a source of support or supply that can be used to serve a purpose.
  • seam: a bed of valuable mineral (especially coal), regardless of thickness.
  • vein: a mineral deposit that has definite boundaries that distinguish it from the surrounding rock. It usually appears as a thin layer that resembles a vein.
  • yield: the amount or quantity of mineral that was or can be mined.

from “Minority Women in Science: Forging the Way – Student Workbook,” Intercultural Development Research Association

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[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]