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Sandra Begay, Sandia National Laboratories

Sandra Begay, Sandia National Laboratories


Sandra Begay, a structural engineer and member of the Navajo Nation, is presenting at the Civil Empowerment Seminar Series put on by the department of civil and environmental engineering (CEE) in partnership with the CEE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEI). Moderating the seminar will be Dr. Jennifer D. Roberts, an associate professor of kinesiology at UMD’s School of Public Health and an affiliate of CEE. Register here.

Begay has been working as an engineer for 33 years and has been at Sandia National Laboratories for the majority of her career. For the past 20 years, Begay has also worked within her own Navajo community to provide alternative energy solutions to tribal members. Her early work in clean energy and her commitment to a harmonious relationship between nature and engineering gave Begay a jump-start on strategic energy planning, place-based projects, and energy justice. From the start of her work in structural engineering, Begay has understood the importance of having dedicated engineers in the field.

While she was attending graduate school at Stanford University, Begay experienced the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Begay says that the earthquake shook her, not just physically but spiritually. She struggled with the amount of responsibility a structural engineer might have, especially during natural disasters like the Loma Prieta earthquake.

“I had to wrestle with it,” says Begay, “but I went back to the Navajo philosophy of ‘walking in beauty’ and thought, if not me, then who? I knew that I’d have to take on that responsibility with an engineering career.”

In both her job as an engineer and in her personal life, Begay practices the Navajo philosophy of “walking in beauty.” The philosophy offers a framework for a positive way of thinking about how to live harmoniously in the world, and it outlines a path for physically taking care of oneself while also interacting positively with others.

Roberts, whose own work has explored how structural inequities baked into built and natural environments affect the health of people in marginalized communities, emphasizes this message and says that Begay’s philosophy could be of great benefit to students.

“I’ve had students talk to me about what they call ‘hustle culture,’ which involves a constant need to be on, to be chasing after the next thing for financial prosperity,” Roberts said. “Sandra’s perspective is just the opposite. It emphasizes harmony and self-care. Yes, you can achieve things and strive for a high level of professionalism and scholarship, but you also need to take care of yourself.”

However, taking care of oneself while working in a fast-paced environment is easier said than done. Begay remembers a time where she overworked herself severely enough to end up in the emergency room. These difficult experiences taught Begay critical life lessons that she carries with her in her career.

Dr. Jennifer D. Roberts, Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

“We have to remember to take care of ourselves in spite of all the things we are trying to get done. We have to learn the word ‘no,’” Begay says.

Indeed, Begay carries this thinking into what she deems her proudest achievement. Twenty years ago, Begay began a Department of Energy (DOE), Indian Energy internship program, where she is able to hire Native students to work with her. Since then, Begay has trained close to 50 interns from multiple Native American tribes. One particularly successful intern, Debby Tewa of the Hopi nation, has worked to deliver renewable energy resources to other members of her Hopi tribe. Begay feels incredibly proud of her interns’ achievements, and says that the program continuously reminds her that she doesn’t have to do it all.

“My students, my interns, are taking charge and doing big and grandiose things. Those are my proudest moments,” says Begay.

Because of her community-based clean energy work, her internship program, and her dedication to “walking in beauty,” Begay has left a legacy for other engineers to follow.

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No Easy Way Home

March 29, 2022

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“I had to wrestle with it,” says Begay, “but I went back to the Navajo philosophy of ‘walking in beauty’ and thought, if not me, then who? I knew that I’d have to take on that responsibility with an engineering career.”

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