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Sandra Begay was born into the Náneesht’ézhí Táchii’nii (charcoal streaked people), her mother Cecilia M. Begay’s Clan, and the Tó dích'íinii Clan (bitter water people), her father Edward T. Begay’s Clan, on June 10, 1963, in the town of Gallup, New Mexico. She grew up in a modern setting but spent most weekends at her grandmother’s traditional hooghan.
Both of Sandra’s parents were role models and mentors to her throughout her life. Her father, Edward T. Begay, former Vice President, Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, and Council member for over 30 years advised Sandra to help the Navajo Nation as well as other native people. Sandra’s mother, Cecilia M. Begay, was a mother and full-time nurse for the Indian Health Service. She passed away on May 15, 1991. According to Sandra, she was a tremendous influence on her life, embedding seeds of Navajo tradition and family values.
In the sixth grade, Sandra became interested in architecture, though she was not a gifted artist; she found that she enjoyed math and solving problems. Sandra recalls an event that greatly influenced her decision to pursue engineering as a profession: “I grew up only a few hours’ drive from Albuquerque and it was an exciting day when one of my grandmothers received electricity for the first time. We made a special visit that night, just to see her shiny new porch light. This basic need for infrastructure sparked my interest in engineering."
During her high school junior year, Sandra attended a “Minority Introduction to Engineering Program” and discovered that civil engineers often worked with architects on a variety of interesting public projects. After graduation from Rehoboth Christian High School, she pursued studies in engineering, completing all undergraduate core classes at the University of New Mexico Community College in Gallup.
She continued her undergraduate studies at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and became involved in the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (ASIES), becoming the first woman to serve for three years, as Chairperson of the Board and executive director of this national non-profit organization. Continuing the ASIES mission of increasing the number of American Indian students enrolled in university science and engineering programs, Sandra reorganized the non-profit organization by adding new programs and scholarships. It took her six and one-half years, working part time and dropping out to help campaign for her father, to receive a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering in 1987.
In an interview at Montana State University, Sandra Begay-Campbell commented on the abilities of women in science and engineering roles, stating that she continues to work to break down gender barriers as well as cultural barriers: "Somewhere there is a myth that says that young girls aren't good at math. I spend my life trying to change that perception."
In 1989, Sandra's dream to attend Stanford dream became a reality, with a full fellowship from the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, Inc. All expenses were paid for her Master’s Degree in Structural Engineering at Stanford University. She graduated with a Master of Science degree in 1991. Sandra realized her vital role as an American Indian engineer. Following the 1989 California bay-area earthquake, she was cognizant of the Navajo world view that humans cannot control Mother Nature but that they do not have to accept the consequences from natural phenomena. Sandra made it a goal to use the best available knowledge to design earthquake resistant structures.
In 1988, Sandra began working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, moving on to Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1990 as a member of the technical staff. Since then, she has been a principal member of the technical staff (the third level of four in the engineering career ladder) at Sandia National Laboratories. Presently, she manages the Tribal Energy Program providing technical assistance to tribes in the Southwest, analyzing renewable energy program development plans with tribes. While she is not able to help individuals with their technical problems, she works with tribal utilities and government agencies providing technical expertise and explaining renewable energy options.
Every year the Department of Energy awards federal grants for rural energy development projects that will increase the proportion of households with power or that will use electricity for economic development. Working in the leading edge renewable energy field requires an understanding of congressional policies, budgets, long-term planning, and networking. It is a constant learning curve that also requires one to listen to the needs of a community and to be able to sharing knowledge; a mission Sandra says is “more than a job--it’s a way of life.”
In 2000, Sandra was a recipient of the Governor's Award for Outstanding Women from the New Mexico Commission on the Status of Women. That year, she also received the Stanford University Multicultural Alumni of the Year Award. Since 2002, Sandra has been a mentor and administrator of the US Department of Energy’s Tribal Energy Internship Program (TEP). She works with students and tribal leaders on their lands to review and analyze renewable energy projects.
The TEP internship program, originally supported by Sandia Labs, is now now overseen by the Department of Energy Office of Science, though TEP and Sandia Labs continue their collaboration. The 12-week internship program includes hands-on experience in the assessment and implementation of renewable energy solutions for tribal communities. Seventeen Native American graduate and undergraduate students have participated in the program since it was enacted; seven of the interns, graduate students, have gone on to complete their master's degrees. From 2003 to 2007, tribal communities such as the Ramona Band of Cahuilla, Hualapai Nation, Navajo Nation, Hopi Nation, and Laguna Pueblo have implemented various forms of renewable energy projects, and benefited from the interns’ hard work.
On October 6th of 2005, Sandra Begay-Campbell, a member of the University of New Mexico Board of Regents, received the UNM School of Engineering Distinguished Engineering Alumnae Award. In 2006, Sandra was a featured as a scientist on the PBS program Kids Go Dragonfly TV. She provided assistance to the Pueblo of Laguna Tribal Utility in 2008, in response to their interest in solar energy. The Laguna tribe has completed the first phase of their Department of Energy-funded energy plan and is currently working on the next phases of the project.
Sandra Begay-Campbell has become a sought after speaker at colleges, universities, and organizations throughout the U.S. including the Navajo Nation. She often tells young audiences to “keep your dreams alive--it may not happen overnight, or along the path that you think, but you can make them happen.” She has advocated for changes within public education and for the rights of rural communities to live with or without electricity at their choosing.
As tribal liaison for the Tribal Energy Program, an outreach program which is inclusive of all 560 federally recognized Native American tribes within the United States, Sandra works with the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation is the largest tribe in the country encompassing four states: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, covering 25,000 square miles, with approximately 250,000 residents. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) is the oldest tribal utility dating back fifty years. Since its inception, NTUA has grown from 15 employees to 550, and has become the largest tribal utility. For the past decade, Sandra has worked with NTUA to install solar panels on reservation homes. NTUA has also added a wind turbine to the power system in an effort to increase the amount of electricity generated on the Navajo reservation.
As of 2009, there are still thousands of households living without electricity in the United States, particularly on tribal reservations. Reservations were not included in the industrial movements within United States and remain greatly affected by poverty and a lack of access to 21st Century technology. The current cost of extending electrical power lines from the grid is $32,000 per mile; a cost that many rural people cannot afford. In 2000, the U.S. Census reported that 298,215 Navajo people lived throughout the United States with 173,987 (58.34%) living within the Navajo Nation boundaries. The Navajo Institute for Social Justice reported a 2005 unemployment rate of 56.1% and a poverty rate of 57% among Navajo people. They also reported that 48 % of Navajo homes lacked running water and indoor plumbing, that 44% of Navajo homes had not electricity and or refrigeration, and that 68% of Navajo children lived in poverty.
Presently NTUA serves 38, 576 electric customers, 7,740 natural gas customers, 35,275 water customers, 13, 493 waste customers, and 168 solar customers. More electrical connections are planned in 2009 including 19 power line projects that will connect 304 families at an estimated cost of 9.961 million dollars and 22 miles of power extensions in the Steamboat Sunrise Mesa which will serve an additional 47 families to the grid at a cost of 1.1 million dollars.
Sandra Begay-Campbell believes that new kinds of technology such as solar energy, small wind turbines that are independent of the grid, and wireless communication like cell phones and WiMAX, can help provide a better way of living in rural tribal communities. In the short-term, her goal is to continue working with the Navajo Nation to develop a large wind farm on the reservation, while her long-term goal is to change the image of today’s engineers, encouraging more women to pursue careers in math and science.
1. Interview with Sandra Begay-Campbell- September, 2009.
2. PBS Kids Go Dragonfly TV. “Real Scientist: Sandra Begay-Campbell”. http://pbskids.org/dragonflytv/scientists/scientist55.html
3. Stanford Engineering Alumni Profile: Sandra Begay-Campbell (MS 1991 CE).
4. The University of New Mexico. UNM Today: “Regent Sandra Begay-Campbell named UNM Distinguished Engineering Alumnae for 2005.” October 07, 2005. www.unm.edu/~market/cgi-bin/archives/000849.html
5. Gallup Independent. NTUA plans more electrical connections in ’09. By Kathy Helms. http://www.gallupindependent.com/2009/02February/020309ntuaplans.html
6. Navajo Institute for Social Justice: http://www.nisj.org/articles.html
7. Tribal Energy Program and the College Student Summer Internships: www.eere.energy.gov/tribalenergy or www.eere.energy.gov/tribalenergy/internships.cfm
8. National Museum of American History. “The Development of the Indrustrial United States 1870-1900.” americanhistory.si.edu/presidency/timeline/pres_era/3_657.html
9. Wikipedia. “Industrialization”. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrialization
10. Winds of Change-Summer-2007. “Exploring the Possibilities Renewable Energy Sources on Tribal Land.” By Mary K. Bowannie. http://www.wocmag.org/2008/summer/feature.html