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U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs interns have a demonstrated track record of success after completing their internships, as highlighted in a recent article. For one of the program’s 2011–2013 interns, Chelsea Chee, success now includes a national honor for leadership in diversity and equity.

Photo of Chelsea Chee.
Chelsea Chee with her National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) Rising Star award. Photo courtesy of Don James.

Each year, the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) Rising Star award recognizes one individual who has demonstrated exemplary leadership traits early in his or her career to promote access, equity, and diversity in education or the workforce. Chee’s leadership across several major projects in New Mexico, including her Natives in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) project, helped earn her the award for 2018.

“It was unexpected for sure,” Chee said. “It wouldn’t have been possible if [my mentors and supervisors] hadn’t supported my work and my ideas, some of which were different, but they trusted me and supported me and helped me turn those ideas into fruition.”

The Natives In STEM project, she said, was one of those ideas. She created Natives In STEM through her current position as the diversity and inclusion coordinator for New Mexico's Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NM EPSCoR). Natives In STEM is a collaborative project between NM EPSCoR and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) to promote Native American identity and sense of belonging in STEM fields by creating and sharing positive images and stories of Native STEM professionals. To date, Natives In STEM has brought STEM posters and informational material to more than 130 Bureau of Indian Education schools and more than a dozen tribal universities and colleges and tribal libraries nationwide.

Now four years into her work with NM EPSCoR, Chee said she has been able to tie many of her experiences during her Indian Energy internship directly to the work she does now. The Office of Indian Energy sponsors an internship program at Sandia National Laboratories that provides an opportunity for undergraduates and graduate students—who are familiar with Native American culture and tribal issues—to support Office of Indian Energy funded projects in the field. During the 12-week internship, interns work with cross-disciplinary teams to receive hands-on experience and gain valuable knowledge relating to numerous energy technologies. This helps educate and create awareness around important energy issues and research within the tribal community and brings technically skilled Natives into the workforce.

“The Indian Energy program and internship were instrumental for me,” she said, “in moving from a student perspective to a professional perspective and helping me transition in that way.”

Chee is from Teesto, Arizona, and a member of the Navajo Tribe. During her internship, Chee studied the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and wrote a compelling research paper on the energy efficiency and renewable energy benefits gained through the installation of solar photovoltaics on the roof of the tribe’s trading post.

Photo of Chelsea Chee and other 2013 interns.
Chelsea Chee, far right, with fellow 2013 summer intern Shalynn Summer Trancosa, center, and internship coordinator Sandra Begay, left, at the Agua Caliente Trading Post. Photo from Sandra Begay, Sandia National Laboratories.

“They made me feel like I belonged,” Chee said of her colleagues in the internship program, “and for somebody like me, that sense of belonging and community is big. It increased my self-efficacy, being part of not only a state conversation, but also a tribal conversation and being comfortable there. It was one of the best, if not the best, internship programs I’ve ever been a part of.”

Chee said she was particularly grateful for the support she received from Sandra Begay, who serves as the internship coordinator as well as a principal member of the technical staff at Sandia. Begay, Chee recalled, was one of the reasons she applied to the internship program. Chee said the first time she saw a Navajo woman connected to STEM was in a mural painted on a trading post wall. Begay was that woman, one of what Chee believed were maybe three or four women out of about 30 tribal members. She noted, in particular, Begay’s age relative to the others—the youngest. Chee said that made her relatable.

“[Begay] was so welcoming and made me feel like I was supposed to be there as a part of the program. She was an instant mentor.”

Photo of 2011 summer Sandia interns.
Chelsea Chee, far right, with fellow 2011 summer interns and internship coordinator Sandra Begay, center, at the Pueblo of Acoma. Photo from Sandra Begay, Sandia National Laboratories

American Indian and Alaska Native students remain among the most underrepresented groups in STEM occupations. Chee said she has made it her mission to change that. She exemplifies how a student internship with the Office of Indian Energy can directly impact tribal initiatives. Since completing her internship five years ago, Chee has become a voice for tribal inclusion in STEM settings and has involved herself in equity conversations at state and local levels throughout New Mexico.

“A lot of the conversations I’ve been a part of have been about communication—staying involved and staying connected,” Chee said. “More recently, I’ve been a part of conversations with the New Mexico STEM Coalition. When I’m in those circles, one thing I talk about is thinking about the rural community. A lot of the times they are tribal, but not always—ensuring we don’t forget about people from those counties or cities or towns or villages who can’t drive to Albuquerque where a lot of the [STEM-related] conversations happen. It is important to have that input.”

Learn more about the Office of Indian Energy college student summer internship program.