Trailblazing in STEM for Native American Women: Catching Up with Aerospace Engineer Kristina Halona

Kristina Halona ● Program Manager, Antares Systems Engineering ● Northrop Grumman

Kristina Halona ● Program Manager, Antares Systems Engineering ● Northrop Grumman

Wogrammer is proud to partner with AAUW in celebration of Native Women’s Equal Pay Day 2019. We caught up with Kristina Halona, an inspiring female leader and advocate for Native women in STEM. We were curious to know what she’d been up to in her STEM journey since we last interviewed her and how her Navajo culture played a role in where she is today.

From hearing stories about the creation of space, to working on rockets that send cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), Kristina’s career journey has been nothing short of spectacular. She credits her journey in STEM to her native Navajo culture and values.

Storytelling is at the heart of Navajo culture. Stories connect one generation to another, inspire imagination, and keep the culture alive. Kristina Halona, an aerospace engineer, vividly remembers being on the reservation and listening to her grandfather’s stories about the Navajo Holy People. Kristina recalls a particular story that she believes set her on the path in STEM and sparked her interest in space. In this story, Changing Woman created the earth and the sky. All the Holy People then came together to arrange the stars in the universe. Black God, a god of fire, meticulously placed each of the stars in the sky while the Coyote, who was a trickster, grew impatient. He waited until the Holy People began arguing to daringly grab the blanket of stars himself and throw it into the sky, resulting in the constellations we see today, like the Big Dipper.

“As a Navajo I grew up in a matriarchal society. The woman is everything. Our mother is the main person of the household and she is the leader, which isn’t like American society where males traditionally lead the household and are the breadwinners. I think this aspect of my culture helped me to take on the STEM field.”

Since we last interviewed Kristina in 2016, her journey in STEM has continued to evolve. She is now working with Northrop Grumman as the Program Manager of the Antares Systems Engineering Group. Antares is a rocket whose mission is to take cargo to the astronauts living at the ISS. Her group will be working on this mission until 2022, and they do two launches a year. Her group’s focus includes the development requirements, interface design, and stability and verification of the rocket.

Kristina reflects on her significant leadership role as empowering, in spite of the fact that she is usually the only woman and person of color in many of the spaces she is involved in.

“My voice and my opinions matter as a female and as a woman of color. No one else in the program has my point of view, which makes me want to use that in my leadership role. It keeps me going.”

Kristina’s confidence and belief in the strength of truth wasn’t cultivated overnight. She grew up shy, introverted and was never used to being a leader and having a voice. She recalls being in undergrad and being the only female and person of color, so everything she did was noticeable.

“I had to work on being an extrovert and getting out of my comfort zone because my job requires me to seek things out and talk to people. Confidence a learned skill that you gain as time goes on. More power to the women and young college students who are already using their voice to empower others and be leaders in the spaces they’re in.”

Kristina is passionate about helping other Native American women obtain opportunities in STEM and be change-makers in their indigienous communities. She advises young Native American women and any women from underrepresented backgrounds to find a mentor in order to confidently own their voice as a leader.

Most importantly, Kristina advises young women to always give back and mentor women of color or those from the same tribal affiliations. Kristina gives back as both a mentor at her alma mater and as a member of the Board of Directors of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), whose mission is to increase the number of indigienous people and Native Americans studying in STEM.

Native Americans only make up one percent of the US population. Kristina wants young students to get a good education and even come back to the reservation and help the community as STEM professionals. Ultimately, Kristina is a trailblazer for Native American women in STEM.

“Never give up and remember why you’re choosing this path. I always look back to being at home on the reservation and hearing my grandpa’s story. Don’t forget about the one thing that makes you passionate in this field. We need more women to push the status quo, use their voice, and continue to be in the room and be seen.”

Kristina Halona received a 2008–09 AAUW Selected Professions Fellowship that funded her master’s degree in engineering at George Washington University. Her story is told in partnership with AAUW, which has a long history of opening doors for women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), from the classroom to Capitol Hill.

This story was written by Stephanie Nweke, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on LinkedIn.