Do Wonderful Spotlight: How Jolene Begay Helps to Inspire the Next Generation of Native American Coders

During World War II, members of the Navajo Tribe worked with the U.S. Government to create a secret military code based on Navajo language. Today, Jolene Begay wants to bring a different kind of code into Native communities across the state of Arizona.

Growing up on a rural Navajo reservation, Jolene’s first introduction to computers was in the sixth grade. It was also one of her first experiences with STEM activities – and it sparked her interest in electronics and technology.

Jolene is a research and development engineer at Intel, supporting a variety of product lines. By combining her technical skills and a passion for volunteering, Jolene has been able to show the importance of STEM learning to the Native communities in her area.

“I lived in a rural area with little to no focus on STEM,” says Jolene. “But I always envisioned bringing a positive change to communities that were in dire need, in the hope that the results would lead to an increase in future Native STEM leaders.”

During her 15+ years as an Intel Native American Network leader, Jolene developed an outreach program, called Empower You, through which she shared her own personal, educational, and professional journey with students in her community, while incorporating hands-on robotics activities. Over the years, Empower You has reached more than 400+ students at multiple schools in Maricopa County and on the Navajo Reservation.

When Anna Prakash, a fellow Intel employee and founder of Education Empowers, heard about Jolene’s work in the community, she knew they could work together to reach even more kids. For the past three years, Jolene has served as a board member, focusing on getting robotics opportunities into schools in the Gila River District.

For Jolene, it’s particularly important that the Native students she interacts with understand that she grew up with many of the same experiences as they did.

“The Navajo Nation reservation is my home,” says Jolene. “This is where I was born and raised. I’m aware of the challenges the communities face daily, and I like to introduce myself with stories of my own life on the reservation.”

This representation helps students see themselves in Jolene. In turn, it helps them realize the potential of where their love of STEM can take them. As a result, she’s seen older students progress beyond the outreach program and get involved in STEM activities on their own.

“I love seeing the engagement and excitement in the youth evolve over time,” says Jolene. “Something I’ve always said is, if I can positively impact one younger person so they pursue STEM, I’ll be happy. All I want is for them to be presented with the opportunity, and to see them try.”

Along with Empower You, Jolene led a three-year pilot program called the Next Generation of Native American Coders initiative. The name is a callback to the previous generation of famous “coders” – the Navajo Code Talkers in WWII. During the program’s run, three high schools on the Navajo Reservation were supplied with computer science learning labs, technology equipment, robotics kits, and virtual telepresence equipment. The program now serves more than 430 students – a number that continues to rise – and has now been embraced by several schools, paving the way for new learning opportunities.

“Through these years of volunteering,” says Jolene, “and with my ever-evolving passion for STEM, this dream continues to unfold. I am so thankful and grateful for Intel’s support to make this a reality.”

As Jolene—and all our Intel volunteers—continue to Do Wonderful, let’s continue to work together to help make the next generation of STEM as diverse as possible.

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