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Navajo veteran explores engineering pathways, mentors Native students

Navajo veteran explores engineering pathways, mentors Native students

Above: A veteran, student organization leader and new program manager for Construction in Indian Country, doctoral student Marcus Denetdale has done it all in pursuit of his third degree from Arizona State University. Photographer Pete Zrioka/ASU

Every student takes his or her own route to a college education. Some have more twists and turns — and, frankly, years — than others, but every journey is enhanced with mentorship.

Navajo doctoral student Marcus Denetdale grew up in Farmington, New Mexico. He wasn’t an overly motivated teenager, and didn’t see himself pursuing the typical high school to college route.

After high school he joined the United States Air Force and served for four years as an avionics technician working on F-15s.

When he ended his service, he embarked on his “odd jobs phase”: waiting tables, working at a natural gas plant, assisting in a funeral home and locksmithing.

But one night in Farmington, 30-year-old Denetdale bumped into Peterson Zah who asked him a question that changed his course: “Have you considered applying to Arizona State University?”

For a Navajo, there’s no one better to have a conversation with about attending college than Peterson Zah, the first president of the Navajo Nation, who has led numerous efforts to bring more Navajos to college. He served as special advisor to President Michael Crow on American Indian affairs and earned an honorary doctorate from ASU, his alma mater, in 2005.

Since that conversation in 2009, Denetdale has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from ASU, enrolled in a doctoral program, held ASU staff positions in ASU’s Graduate College and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and has been an active member and president of ASU’s Tempe-based Student Veterans Association.

To say he’s merely “gotten involved” is a clear understatement.

Currently pursuing a doctorate in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, his research focuses on identifying the motivations, catalysts and barriers that Native American students face in their pursuit of an engineering education.

He works closely with tribes to sort and analyze their data concerning students and potential students and the pipeline in which they reach engineering fields.

“We want to identify what factors play a role in Native American students completing a bachelor’s degree and, from there, what propels them to attend graduate school or decide what career route they’ll pursue,” he says.

In the end, the goal of his research is to know how to create a program that successfully mentors these students and helps them reach their goals.

Denetdale was recently appointed program manager of the Del E. Webb School of Construction’s Construction in Indian Country program, housed within the Fulton Schools. The program helps attract, retain and financially support Native American students studying construction management at ASU, and provides a great platform for Denetdale to engage in mentorship and to enhance his research studies.

The program also organizes design-build projects for students to obtain on-the-job construction management leadership experience on Arizona reservations.

“For me to move forward academically, it took mentors checking in during every step of the way,” says Denetdale. “I had mentors say, ‘Have you considered a master’s degree?’ ‘Have you looked into undergraduate research?’ ‘Have you thought about harnessing this passion toward a doctoral dissertation?’”

Within Construction in Indian Country, Denetdale says, “Advisory board members and I are constantly talking to and encouraging our students. We want them to know we have jobs for them, that their community needs them and that we will do everything we can to financially support them.”

The program is currently gearing up for the Construction in Indian Country National Conference on April 17–19, which brings together students, tribal officials, representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the construction industry.

“Students meet internship providers; tribal leaders meet subcontractors who can support their community; and all the funds raised from our golf tournament provide scholarships for our construction students,” says Denetdale.  

Denetdale is currently helping to manage discussions with Chapter House officials in Tuba City, Arizona regarding the possibility of Construction in Indian Country taking on a handful of new design-build projects for the local community.

Amidst all this, Denetdale decided to step down from his position as president of ASU’s Student Veterans Association on the Tempe campus to focus more fully on his work with Construction in Indian Country.

But he feels indebted to the network and support the veteran community provided to him when he enrolled as an older, non-traditional undergraduate student, and he will continue his involvement as a co-advisor and as a member of ASU’s Alumni Veterans Chapter.

Looking to the future, Denetdale plans to stay involved with student affairs and the administrative side of higher education.

“I want to help that student who has the motivation and aspiration to attend college to overcome the barriers they face, and I want to influence policies and provide solutions to help the student experience go well for all students, regardless of where they come from and how they got there,” he says.

Though he’s taken a lot of different steps in his journey to become a doctoral student at ASU — from service in the Air Force to odd jobs to staff positions — he says, “My story at ASU can be anyone’s story.”    

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