Aaron Yazzie’s journey began on the Navajo Nation where he excelled as a student. His mother, a teacher, and his father, an engineer, emphasized education from an early age. Aaron knew that college was in his future. But even as a gifted student, he doubted whether he was “good enough” to get into the schools he wanted to get into.
In high school Aaron attended College Horizons (and Upward Bound, too), a program for Native American high school students. The organization exposes Native students to college and vise versa. Aaron met someone from Stanford University, who encouraged him to apply to Stanford. Even with good grades, a drive for school, and encouragement by university staff, he was not confident he would be admitted. Thankfully, Aaron was only suffering from imposter syndrome, and was able to enroll at Stanford.
Aaron Yazzie studied mechanical engineering while at Stanford. He also lived at the Native American house on campus. Although gifted academically, Aaron found he had to work harder at Stanford, and that the competition was stiff.
During college, Aaron worked as an intern with NASA, and realized it was somewhere he enjoyed working. He never thought NASA was somewhere a mechanical engineer could work. He spent two summers in college with NASA and applied for a job. He successfully transitioned internships with NASA to full time employment. Aaron has even worked on components that have been to space already, with one of his first assignments being part of the team that developed the Mars Rover.
Aaron and I discussed what it is like to be a Native employee. There are a handful, at most, at NASA JPL. This is why Aaron spends much of his time with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). Aaron benefited from AISES as a student and sees the need to increase Native representation in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and is now working to give back to the organization, and encourage more Native students to study these fields.
I enjoy hearing the stories of NextGen Natives on each podcast episode. But Aaron Yazzie is the first engineer I’ve been able to connect with, and his work is pretty amazing. I look forward to meeting more Natives like Aaron that are building things that we can use, or at least are part of something is going where no human has ventured before!