Montana State University

Program powers record number of American Indian engineering grads

May 9, 2008 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU news


Members of the first group of an MSU program that supports American Indian students pursuing engineering degrees have a lot to smile about as graduation day nears. From left, Floyd Azure of Poplar, Freeland Demaray of Colstrip and Sydney Resel and Jade Watts of Bozeman, are four of nine Native American students who will graduate with engineering degrees in 2008. All benefitted from MSU's Designing Our Community program. Funded by the Hewlett Foundation, DOC is part of the College of Engineering's diversity efforts under the Engineering Minority Program, often called EMPower. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Sydney Resel will walk alone across the podium to receive her bachelor's degree in civil engineering, but she says she could not have gotten there by herself.

"Something I learned is that you need people with you in life, especially in engineering," said Resel, who originally came to Montana State University as a film major but switched to engineering because she wanted a degree that would allow her to find a good job in Montana.

"From the beginning, (engineering) was really challenging and I didn't know if I could do it," said Resel, who grew up in Bozeman and is affiliated with the Little Shell Chippewa tribe. "I always suspected I might fail, but I took it a step at a time and found I didn't fail."

Resel credits part of her achievement to an MSU program geared to helping students with Native American backgrounds excel in engineering.

"Whatever it is in life, it's hard to do it on your own," Resel said of her involvement in MSU's Designing Our Community program. DOC is part of the College of Engineering's diversity efforts under the Engineering Minority Program (EMPower) focusing on increasing the number of American Indian engineering graduates

Resel is one of nine Native American students who will receive an engineering degree from MSU this year. That number is about three times larger than in previous years and thought to be a record high at MSU, largely because of the efforts of the Designing Our Community program, funded five years ago by a grant from the Hewlett Foundation.

According to the American Society for Engineering Education, American Indian students compose less than one percent of engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. In the five years since MSU received the Hewlett grant it has become one of the top universities in the country graduating engineers of Native American background. MSU officials say that this year's number of graduates is likely to rank MSU behind the University of Oklahoma, MIT, Oklahoma State and the U.S. Naval Academy in the number of annual Indian graduates.

Sheree Watson, the Designing Our Community program director, chief recruiter, counselor and student cheerleader, said that engineering is not a common career choice because not many Indian students learn about engineering in school. Her program seeks to remedy that by working with Montana's tribal colleges and reservation public schools to find students with a yen for math and science and a desire for a good job that will keep them in Montana.

One of those was Freeland Demaray, a Northern Cheyenne mechanical engineering graduate from Colstrip. After he graduates Saturday in front of a large contingent of friends and family, he will begin work with an engineering firm in Billings.

Demaray said he began studying architecture at MSU, but found the hands-on aspects of engineering appealed to him. "There is a lot of decision making and a lot of opportunity in the field," he said.

Floyd Azure, a member of the Blackfeet Nation from Poplar, is somewhat of an anomaly among the EMPower students because he said he knew from the beginning that he wanted a degree in mechanical engineering.

"My passion is building things," said Azure, whose father had an autobody shop. Even knowing what he wanted to do, "it was hard to come to MSU from Poplar. It was quite a transition." Now, Azure will work in an MSU lab for 10 weeks this summer and then apply to graduate school in aerospace design, perhaps mixing in elements of theoretical physics.

"It's hard to explain how many doors and opportunities open up (in college)," he said.

The EMPower students all mentor Indian students not as far along in their engineering studies. Demaray says he likes to quote Nike when he mentors about the importance of education.

"I say just do it," Demaray said. "I tell them you have got to go to school and get a degree. There is plenty of opportunity here and other schools, but without a degree you are in pretty serious trouble. I tell them if others can get a degree in engineering, they can, too."

Resel said she uses herself as an example because she thought an engineering degree would be impossible.

"But I did it one class at a time, one day at a time," she said. Resel doesn't know what she'll do after commencement, but her viewpoint has expanded and shifted during her time at MSU, particularly because of a student exchange to Australia.

Jade Watts, who will also graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering and has a good job after graduation with General Electric in Cincinnati, said he was motivated to go into engineering because a friend told him he was too dumb to succeed at it. Watts, who grew up in Bozeman with a Cherokee background, originally enrolled in a junior college to sort out what he wanted to do. The major has suited him and opened up an opportunity for an internship at GE last summer that led to his job. He plans to pursue master's degree that will be paid for by the company.

Watts said, ironically, that one of his most powerful lessons at MSU was not his success, but failure.

"Before I came here I thought failure was cut and dry," Watts said. "But after I got in class here I learned that other students also struggled and I was not alone. I learned that it's ok not to know the right answer right away and you don't need to be a genius to get a degree in engineering. You can be your own person, you can be yourself, and come out of this with greatness."
To learn more about MSU College of Engineering's Designing Our Community program, go to http://www.coe.montana.edu/doc/

Sheree Watson (406) 994-6723, swatson@coe.montana.edu