How the first Native American in space is inspiring students
The American Indian Science and Engineering Society is helping Native American students connect with STEM careers, thanks to support from Wells Fargo.
When John Herrington was a freshman in college at the University of Colorado, he wasn't motivated and he didn't want to be there. Instead, he preferred outdoor activities like rock climbing. As a result, he was suspended for his low GPA and left college. He decided to return many years later, and today he holds a doctorate in education from the University of Idaho and is known for being the first Native American to venture into space.
Herrington, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, shares that story at speaking engagements for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. AISES, a national nonprofit, focuses on increasing the representation of American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, First Nations, and other indigenous peoples of North America in science, technology, engineering, and math studies and careers.
“A common theme in Indian Country is, when you go to school, you’re uncomfortable because you’re out of your normal setting,” Herrington said. “I take my story and say, ‘It happened to me, and here’s how it made a difference.’”
Herrington is currently a board member and lifetime member of AISES, which supports students before, during, and after college through scholarships, internships, workforce development, career resources, national and regional conferences, science fairs, and leadership development. He said the nonprofit provides a vehicle for Native American students to meet professionals who grew up in similar backgrounds.
In November, Wells Fargo awarded AISES a grant of $575,000 over two years.
“I think it’s important to recognize the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a student,” Herrington said. “Wells Fargo is giving back and reaching out to an organization that gives students opportunities to make the most of themselves and honor their heritage by making the world a better place.”
The funding is part of Wells Fargo’s $50 million commitment, made in November 2017, to support American Indian/Alaska Native communities over a five-year period. Of the $575,000 donation to AISES, $250,000 will go toward staffing needs, development, and business training to support the management team, staff, and board of directors.
The remaining $325,000 will help establish the “Native Financial Cents: Supporting Financial Capability for Native Americans” program to develop and deliver a culturally contextualized version of Wells Fargo’s Hands on Banking® program for Native American youth and young adults. The Hands on Banking program is a free, engaging, non-commercial program, available in both English and Spanish, that teaches people in all stages of life about the basics of responsible money management, including how to create a budget, save and invest, borrow responsibly, buy a home, and establish a small business.
“We need more relationships with Native-led nonprofit organizations like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, where Native youth can develop their interest in the STEM field, learn life skills like money management, and pursue careers as high as the moon and stars — just like John Herrington did,” said Cora Gaane, Wells Fargo’s national tribal philanthropy leader. “It is our honor to work together with AISES for the benefit of many generations to come.”
Gage Hutchens, a systems support consultant and the incoming enterprise leader for the Native People’s Team Member Network for Wells Fargo, introduced AISES and Wells Fargo. Hutchens, who is of Cherokee descent, said he is proud of the company’s award to AISES. As a lifetime member and speaker for the nonprofit, Hutchens said he knows the quality of the organization and what it does for students. “These young people are going onto serious careers in STEM, so for us to be there at a young age, and for them to see Wells Fargo supporting them, that’s wonderful, and it’s not forgotten,” he said.
An inspiring story for students
After being suspended and leaving college, Herrington worked as a surveyor in Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, holding up pieces of glass so engineers could determine how wide and steep the canyon was and minimize the impact of building a highway.
“For the first time, I was learning math in a practical setting, and it just clicked,” Herrington said.
His employers convinced him to return to school, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics. While there, he tutored a former U.S. Navy captain who convinced Herrington to join the Navy. Herrington served as a pilot and later became a Navy test pilot.
“I realized my math background directly applied to airplanes,” Herrington said. “Then I realized, of most of the people I admired as astronauts, about half of them were Navy test pilots. I thought, ‘If they did it, why can’t I?’”
He was selected by NASA to be an astronaut candidate in 1996 after applying twice and earning his master’s degree. In 1997, while still an astronaut candidate, members of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe near Houston visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center and met with Herrington. AISES leaders learned of his heritage, and he was invited to be a keynote speaker at an upcoming conference.
“I was nervous as all get out,” Herrington said of his first involvement with AISES. “But it was an incredibly warm and inviting and inclusive organization. I was totally enamored with what they were doing, and within a couple of years, I was on the board.”
Herrington rocketed into space as a member of the crew for the space shuttle Endeavour from Nov. 23 through Dec. 7, 2002. During this flight, he brought the Chickasaw Nation’s flag and eagle feathers, one of which was presented to him by an elder from AISES. Herrington, whose Chickasaw heritage is from his maternal grandfather, said being the first Native American in space was an incredible honor.
“It was humbling for sure,” he said. “My grandfather passed before I flew, but because of what he did, I could honor his life and how hard he worked.”
Herrington has participated in almost all of AISES’s conferences since his first one, and he continues to share his story about how he realized his own passion for STEM.
He said he knows kids want to be actors and athletes when they are younger, but he hopes the ones involved with AISES realize that the engineers and scientists are the ones who change the world. “We have the least represented minority in math and science,” Herrington said. “I want to impress upon Native American students that they come from scientists who built structures that still stand today. This is who they are.”