“I’ve heard people say, ‘Choose a specific path and go all in on that path.’ But I don’t give that advice because you never know where your opportunity will come from.”

Air Force reservist and Engineering Technical Program Manager Zachary Oxendine pulls from his rural, Indigenous roots to empower the next generation of leaders in STEM.

My parents are both deaf, so I learned to communicate very effectively from an early age, often speaking on their behalf. By the time I was eight, I was negotiating car loans. I come from a large, multicultural family — my dad is Lumbee, a Native American tribe from North Carolina, my mom is white from Ohio, and I have seven siblings.  Despite not having much, I have fond memories of living on a 20+ acre property with my family. It was a country living. 

My interests were always varied. I tried everything from theater to writing for the school newspaper to even starting my own clothing line. I wouldn’t say I was passionate about one specific thing; I wanted to try everything. Although I was an honors kid, I never turned in my homework, so I didn’t end up getting into college. Three months after graduating from high school, I enlisted in the Air Force, where I served for four and a half years and discovered my interest in cyber security, followed by two years in the Air National Guard Reserves.  

One day, I happened to meet an executive at Microsoft at a cookout. During a game of cornhole, he told me to reach out if I ever needed a job after the Air Force. Not sure whether he was serious, I set my sights on working at Microsoft.  

When I got out of the Air Force, I enrolled at the University of South Carolina, but Microsoft was still calling my name. I left college with an Associate’s degree and began the process of applying for — and getting rejected from — over 25 technical programs and support jobs. Eighteen months later, I got connected with a guy in Engineering at Microsoft. I applied for a job on his team and got it. I worked my butt off to get hired. I studied every single day. I took like five certifications. I networked with every single person that I could. I was determined.  

At Microsoft, I immediately gravitated toward the Indigenous ERG (employee resource group) because I wanted to extend resources to our communities. I decided to build a STEM camp for Indigenous youth. I brought in Verizon, IBM, and various other companies as well as politicians to support the camp. Once the camp started to come together, it went viral.  

As someone from an Indigenous background who took a less traditional path to work in tech, I know that many Indigenous youth find it hard to envision themselves in STEM roles. Yet, the most pressing issues on our planet are likely going to be solved by people working in these industries. I can’t build a college and I can’t build a Microsoft, but I can build a camp with support and resources from Microsoft and other companies and give high school students a one-week opportunity to participate in hands-on activities and networking.  

We’re now in our second year; last year’s camp was “Discovering DC with Indigenous STEM” and this year’s camp is “Pursuit of Indigenous STEM.” Of the kids that attended the camp last year, 14 have already applied for this year’s camp. Moving forward, I’ll be expanding the camp to kids from rural communities of all races. All that matters is that you want an opportunity to envision yourself in STEM.  

I’ve heard people say, “Choose a specific path and go all in on that path.” But I don’t give that advice because you never know where your opportunity will come from. I never thought I would be an engineer. I didn’t have the resume, but I was curious and worked really hard to get here. 

My background, coming from Indigenous roots with deaf parents and with so many siblings, made for an environment of fortitude, creativity, and perseverance – but I didn’t have the discipline. When I entered the Air Force, I realized that if I apply discipline to all these characteristics, the sky’s the limit.

Discover more stories like Zachary’s by visiting: https://aka.ms/InclusionisInnovation/Military