Experience Provides Lasting Impact and Opportunity to Cultivate Professional Development

"Since I became an intern, it showed me that working to build renewable energy projects in Indian Country for the benefit of Native communities is something that I’m passionate about and want to do in my career."

That’s Sarah LaVallie, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, referring to her experience in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy-sponsored student internship program. The internship program for college students is administered through DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories, and has been since 2002.

"It showed me how I can actually take what I’ve learned in my education and bring that back home or to other communities and use it to make a positive impact," explained LaVallie.

In 2023, LaVallie earned her master’s degree in science, technology, and environmental policy following her experience in the Office of Indian Energy-sponsored internship program. The experience offers an invaluable learning opportunity for Native students to get real-world, hands-on experience working on Tribal renewable energy projects.

Three interns pose with their mentor.
2022–2023 year-round interns: Rachel Herring (left), Veronique Arguello (second from right), and Sarah LaVallie (right) with Sandra Begay of Sandia National Laboratories at the 2022 Office of Indian Energy Program Review.
Photo from Sandra Begay.

LaVallie participated in the year-round internship program from 2022 to 2023 alongside peers Veronique Arguello and Rachel Herring.

During a short interview with the year-round interns, Herring and Arguello echoed LaVallie’s sentiment about the career-guiding internship experience.

"The internship has really led to a sense of purpose in what I want to do," said Herring, a recent graduate of Middlebury Institute of Monterey Bay and a member of the Choctaw Nation. "I never really thought that I wanted to pursue research and policy, but now that’s my number-one thing I want to do."

"[This internship] really turned into this whole direction of my career that I wouldn’t have gained anywhere else," said Arguello, a member of the Acoma and Santo Domingo (Kewa) Pueblos, who aspires to become an environmental planner for Tribal communities. "There is not even a handful of opportunities like this across our nation, so [being] a part of this is really unique."

Arguello is right.

For more than two decades, this one-of-a-kind internship program has offered Native American and Alaska Native science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) undergraduate and graduate students direct exposure to issues concerning Tribal renewable energy development in Native communities. The experience provides unmatched professional experience for students interested in meeting the growing interest and technical needs of Tribes pursuing renewable energy.

"The internship has really shown me the amount of diversity, that no two Tribes are the same," said LaVallie. "What has worked well for one Tribe could differ from what has worked well for another, and there’s not really a one-size-fits-all approach to Tribal energy development."

Three Native American woman in front of a solar panel in the desert.
Previous participants in student internship program learn about clean energy during a visit to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. Pictured (left to right): Sarah LaVallie, Sherry Sneezer, Edwina Leslie.
Photo from Sandra Begay.

Applied Learning Through Research

Throughout the internship, students are required to apply what they are learning by focusing on a specialized area of interest, culminating in the development of a research paper.

Past student intern research paper topics have covered a wide range of topics, such as shifting from fossil fuel reliance to clean energy, identifying barriers and pathways forward for Tribal clean energy deployment, and mitigating climate change effects on Tribes.

"This internship really provided real-life context during my academics, which were heavy in theory. This opportunity to develop a research paper on my own has really inspired me and, I would say, changed my career completely," explained Herring.

Three Native American woman in front of a large solar installation in the desert.
Participants in the student internship program on a site visit to the Navajo Nation 55-megawatt solar farm in Kayenta, AZ. Pictured (left to right): Sherry Sneezer, Edwina Leslie, and Sarah LaVallie.
Photo from Sandra Begay.

Herring chose to write her paper on recently enacted federal policies that incentivize critical mineral procurement for the clean energy transition, and the impacts this has on Tribal nations and biodiversity. 

"My hope for the interns is for them to be leaders in clean energy, leaders in sustainable development, leaders in renewable energy projects," said Sandra Begay—an engineer, Principal Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories, intern mentor, and supervisor—in an article about the college student internship program’s 20th anniversary. Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation, has been implementing the program on behalf of the DOE’s Tribal energy programs since 2002.

Interns support Tribal energy projects and assist a cross-disciplinary team to perform specific technical tasks in the field and at Sandia National Laboratories.

"Rather than just tokenizing that they have interns, they really do care about us and want us to professionally develop," said Arguello.

Video Url
For 20 years, Sandia National Laboratories and the Department of Energy's Office of Indian Energy has offered an internship program to Native American and Alaskan Native STEM college students. In this video, interns visited two California tribes, Campo Kumeyaay Tribe and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, to learn and reflect on the Tribes' successes.
Sandia National Laboratories

Lasting Value Beyond the Internship

LaVallie, Herring, and Arguello all agreed that the experience offered them each so much more than just learning and professional experience, including opportunities to meet new friends, connect with professional colleagues, and make lasting memories.

"The internship program has had such a positive influence on me. It’s one of my absolute favorite experiences that I’ve had in college," said LaVallie. "I’ve made lasting relationships and will be taking so much with me as I move forward in both my career and my life in general."

Three women pose for a group selfie.
Interns Rachel Herring (left), Sarah LaVallie (center), and Veronique Arguello pose for a selfie at the 2022 Office of Indian Energy Program Review.
Photo from Veronique Arguello.

Arguello agreed the experience provided invaluable opportunities to grow their professional network and build transferable skills, such as effective communication and networking. 

"I practice introductions now, and I understand the value of introducing yourself to people to build that network and connection with others," Arguello said.

"The Native community in STEM and policy and environmental work, it is small, but it’s so strong," said Herring. "It’s so amazing to have an opportunity to travel and meet so many different people that are willing to help and give advice or just be a friend even. It’s been amazing."

Since its start in 2002, the program has helped guide more than 50 Native STEM students on their career journeys.

Apply for the Next Round of Internships

Applications are accepted each spring for both full and part-time internship opportunities.

Internship announcements will be posted on both the Sandia careers web page and the Office of Indian Energy’s college student internship program web page.

Interested individuals can also sign up to receive the DOE Office of Indian Energy Tribal College and Universities newsletter to receive email alerts about this internship opportunity, as well as other college and STEM education opportunities around Indian Country and Alaska.