Celebrating Diversity - Sydney James

  • Sydney James

Celebrating Diversity: Sydney James

National American Indian Heritage Month:

In the College of Engineering, all are welcome. To better share the stories of how our faculty, staff, students and alumni are diverse in their many varying forms, we are celebrating various heritage and other nationally recognized months. This recognition will include stories about those in our greater engineering community, as well as sharing events and other opportunities.

Sydney James

Graduate student in Civil Engineering / B.S. in Civil Engineering from UNL, 2019

Q: Describe a bit about your personal and/or professional background.

A: I am a master’s student in Civil Engineering and my research is focused on transportation safety in rural areas and areas that are home to Native American Reservations. I am from Rapid City, South Dakota, and I am an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. I started my undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Although I enjoyed my time at Mines, I transferred to UNL in 2017, and finished my undergraduate degree in 2019.

Q: What is your role in the College of Engineering – and what do you enjoy (love!) about what you are doing?

A: I am currently a graduate research assistant through the Mid-America Transportation Center, and I am funded by a National Science Foundation National Research Traineeship. My thesis research is on safety associated with the transportation of hazardous material through rural areas, and areas that are home to Native American Reservations. Although Native Americans make up less than 2% of the population, on average two Native people are killed every day in motor vehicle crashes. For this reason, more resources and attention needs to be dedicated to addressing transportation safety on Native American Reservations. I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of the College of Engineering where I am able to research issues that are important to me, and hopefully make a difference in Native American communities.

Q: How do you bring your own unique background to your role/responsibilities in the college or your professional life?

A: I was really fortunate to have found the Mid-America Transportation Center (MATC) after transferring to UNL as an undergraduate student back in 2017. Through MATC, I have mentored Native American students from the Winnebago Reservation and the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska through the Roads, Rails, and Racecars engineering after school program. In addition to Roads, Rails, and Racecars, I have been a mentor for the annual Sovereign Native Youth STEM Leadership Academy. This is a great program where Native American high school kids from all over Nebraska spend a week in Lincoln learning about the many different careers in STEM.

I think this kind of mentoring is really important because we put an emphasis on showing kids that there are so many different paths in STEM, and they can choose any of them! By showing the kids how someone who looks like them, or grew up like them, has been successful in a STEM career, the concept starts to resonate with them, and they realize that they can do it too. Another program I have been able to be a part of is the Scholar’s Program. The Scholar’s Program focuses on encouraging students attending two-year programs at Tribal Colleges to go on to pursue a four-year degree. Through the Scholar’s Program, I have been able to share my experiences as a Native American college student, talk about why I decided to get an engineering degree, and give insights into what got me through my moments of self-doubt - because every student has had or will have those moments.

Q: What advice or words of wisdom could you share with others in our engineering community (staff, faculty, students, alums)?

A: One piece of advice I would give anyone considering or pursuing a career in engineering would be, why not you? You belong here. No one shows up to the first day of Calculus as a pro at deriving and integrating. The skills required for an engineering career take practice, determination, and grit. Every engineering student has had that moment when they thought it was too hard. Don’t quit, you belong here.