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Engineer encourages Native American youth to reach high

Susan Simpson

Don’t give up, find a support community and a career you love.

Kelly Thompson, engineer

That was the advice of Williams engineer Kelly Thompson who spoke on a virtual panel about STEM careers to middle and high school students as part of the Native American Youth Summit, sponsored by the Indian Health Care Resource Center in Tulsa.

The Alaska native, who is one-eighth Inupiat, spoke about his journey to a better life and some of the difficulties along the way. After his enlistment in the U.S. Air Force, Thompson pursued his degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It was not always smooth sailing, but he got through with some help from his friends.

“I was the first person in my family to go to college,” he said. “I didn’t have that role model for what a successful professional looked like.” Though he struggled to develop study skills, Thompson said he persevered with the help of study partners and mentors.

“I had a counselor who kept saying ‘You can do this, you are alright,’” he said. “When it was 40 below and my car wouldn’t start, that made all the difference to me; it kept me going. Find those people that will help you on your journey.”

He recommends joining professional societies as a starting point to build relationships. The American Indian Science and Engineering Society helped Thompson realize his potential because those he met helped turn a seemingly impossible idealized goal into a tangible, possible next step. He said gaining that concrete perspective empowered him to move forward.

He told the students that they belong in the professional workforce, and their differences matter because they bring new perspective to the workplace.

“You have experiences they haven’t had. When you work and you bring your ideas to the table, you’re going to come up with things other people would not have thought of –because of your diverse viewpoint.”

The Native American Youth Summit was held virtually this year because of COVID-19 concerns. Still, hundreds of students tuned in for a full day of sessions aimed at providing coping skills and encouragement.

The goal of the Native American Youth Summit is to help Native American youth prepare for a bright today and an even brighter tomorrow, said Debbie Starnes, development director for the Indian Health Care Resource Center.

She said the theme this year was Know Your Story.

“Thanks to the support of sponsors like Williams, we were able to attract top-level speakers nationally and locally, especially when the event was virtual,” said Starnes.