On April 25, 2017, the College of Engineering hosted Sandra Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation and technical lead for sustainable energy practices at Sandia National Laboratories. Begay led a panel of UW-Madison and private sector experts at the Environmental Justice, Renewable Energy, and the Future of Our Planet forum.
After delivering the keynote address to more than 250 attendees from across the UW-Madison campus, Begay and a distinguished panel of experts—including Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute; Sumudu Atapattu, director of research centers and senior lecturer in the UW Law School; Ruchi Gakhar, a postdoctoral researcher in nuclear engineering; and Burke O’Neal, co-founder of Full Spectrum Solar, a private solar panel company.
UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies master’s student Dantrell Cotton facilitated the panel, which discussed issues such as climate change and the Paris Climate Agreement, rights of marginalized communities, recent solar and energy innovations, and individual health benefits of sustainable practices. “The event opened my eyes to issues in the world today. My generation is responsible to fix some of these challenges. Panelists were passionate about their work and inspired all of us to push for a better world,” says Sarah Peterson, a civil engineering undergraduate student who attended the forum.
In her keynote speech, Begay discussed how membership in the Navajo Nation has influenced her academic and professional experiences. She talked about both positive challenges and difficult challenges, particularly in her transition from a majority-Navajo high school to a predominantly white college experience, where she coped by creating study groups with other Native students.
As a Native female engineer, Begay noted she is one in 32,000 in the United States, and she advised students to envision themselves living their goals. “You must see yourself there, including the time of day, even the clothes you’re wearing. The details are important to make it real,” she said.
Begay earned an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from the University of New Mexico, and a master’s degree in structural engineering from Stanford University before continuing to Sandia National Laboratories. In her current role, Begay consults with Native communities on renewable energy installations. “I enjoyed the conversation about solar panels and the work Ms. Begay has done for the Navajo people in New Mexico. She truly inspired me to give back to my community,” says engineering student Donale Richards.
After the forum, Begay traveled to the College of Menominee Nation (CMN), a tribal college in Keshena, Wisconsin, with a two-year pre-engineering program, to meet with students, faculty and staff. She shared her experiences as an energy consultant to CMN in 2007 and in her visit to the on-campus Sustainability Development Institute. Begay’s visit to Wisconsin was supported by the National Science Foundation Engineering Directorate and Tribal Colleges and Universities Program.