"I think around the box"

Experiences of a Native Two-spirit Undergraduate Student in Computing

Diversity is necessary for the creative and critical problem solving of 21st century STEM fields; yet many groups remain severely underrepresented in STEM higher education. Studies exploring the representation and experiences of minoritized groups in STEM contexts can provide insight into factors that support students’ persistence and into how institutions can increase recruitment and retention. However, some underrepresented groups comprise such small percentages in STEM education studies that they are rendered not statistically significant and are thus omitted from report results. This is known as the “small numbers” problem (Pawley, 2019), and it particularly impacts Native groups—especially Native two-spirit individuals who are severely underrepresented in STEM programs, and thus nearly invisible in studies.

To help address this research deficiency, in 2019, the Double Bind team at TERC partnered with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) on Native Women and Two-Spirit Individuals in Computing Higher Education (NAWC2), a research project funded by the Women of Color in Computing Collaborative. The project examined factors that influence and support Native women and two-spirit individuals’ persistence in computer science (CS) undergraduate education. Our team utilized photo elicitation, a methodology that collects data by asking participants to take photographs in response to research prompts, and then uses these photos to guide participants’ interviews. Photo elicitation evokes a deeper meaning to participants’ experiences, as the combination of photos and words expresses more than what words alone can. Given the method’s empowering potential for participants, we implemented it with a decolonizing intent, meaning the intent to center Indigenous experiences and ways of thinking (Smith et al., 2018). We also conducted a focus group in which participants responded to the study’s preliminary findings.

Creative: “I’m creative, and I’ll do things with style and everything … I think more than just outside the box. I think around the box. Being a two-spirit individual at the same time kind of makes everything somehow work together, and then makes everything you do inspiration to other people.”

With such a scarcity of research on two-spirit individuals in STEM, in this article we bring forward findings from NAWC2 about a participant who called himself Tokala and identified as two-spirit, and shared how his identity as a two-spirit Native man influenced his journey as an undergraduate in CS.

According to Jacobs et al. (1997), the term “two-spirit” is relatively new in both literature and common use. “Twospirit” originated in 1990 as a term for contemporary Native LGBTQ+ individuals and has come to refer to Native roles and identities around gender/sexual orientation categories that emphasize the spiritual aspect of one’s life. However, there is no consensus around the meaning of the term, as it varies by individual and culture. Our research team chose not to define the term for our project, but rather followed participants’ self-identification. Tokala clearly identified as a two-spirit individual, and here we share what we learned from his contributions to the NAWC2 study.

"I think around the box"

Tokala often reflected on how being two-spirit aided him in his CS classes because he approached tasks in a more creative way than his peers. He acknowledged that he was different from those learning alongside him and chose to view this difference as an asset. He reflected:

I feel like I approach [things] in a very different [and] creative way at the same time. It’s obvious I’m different in class too. But it gives me a challenge ... Being creative, you create different situations or scenarios on what to do or how to do it … Being a two-spirit in [CS] and [in] college … it kind of made everything I do in the class different than all the kids, and then they want to learn off of me too.

Tokala further explained his perspective when relating a time he and his peers were tasked to dismantle machinery. He could see different ways to take it apart, while his peers saw only one approach, until they witnessed his way of working. Tokala commented:

They only see the outside or the inside, or they see one way. And then [there’s] me. I see different ways of how to take this apart. Or I could see different ways to help to reset it and make it new … So when they see that I’m actually … beyond this typical one-track mind, that’s when they start to change, and that’s when they start to actually do things differently along with me too.

Tokala actively acknowledged how he is different and saw these differences as an advantage in his CS major. He saw various ways to approach a situation and in doing so, helped others think and create differently as well. In describing one of his photos, entitled “Creative,” which featured a structure he created only using binder clips, he described himself as “think[ing] around the box.”

"I changed their perspectives"

School Work: “[I]f you think about plants, they’re rooted, and they breathe, just like how we are. And no matter what, they’re always silent, but yet whenever you’re near them, you feel sincerity, or you feel like peace of mind.”

As Tokala pursued his undergraduate degree in CS, he also had a job assisting mostly non-Native people to use computers, write resumes, and apply for jobs. He kept a cactus at that job, which he photographed and shared with us. He told us he felt that the plant was “applauding” him and helping him feel “peace of mind” when he interacted kindly with clients who were prejudiced against him. He shared:

I consider I broke a lot of barriers in that area because, well, you know how people are towards Natives, and they think that we can’t do much in [the CS] area. But here comes me, all happy and bright, and they said a lot of [negative] words, but I just kept my cool. I smiled, and I helped them out even though they smash a computer or a keyboard or something … So whenever I helped out prejudiced people, their perspectives on Natives changed a lot, because I wasn’t angry or rude or anything. I just helped them through it, and I was the nicest person in that area … And that’s why I feel like working there was a great opportunity, because I changed a lot of people’s lives, and I changed their perspectives.

By demonstrating computing competence and cheerful patience, Tokala combatted stereotypes and actively challenged the prejudices he faced. As in his classroom experiences, Tokala changed how people saw things; in this case, how people perceived him and by extension other Native people.

"I need to go beyond"

As noted earlier, Native people are underrepresented in CS, especially those who identify as two-spirit. Referring to a photo of his laptop, school textbooks, and notebooks, Tokala said he felt a responsibility to succeed and serve as a role model to inspire other Native and two-spirit individuals to pursue CS.

Having a Native in [CS] is very essential, because you can help out in different ways and in different things … [T]here are some downfalls in being alone sometimes. But having the notion that you’re paving the way for others after you gives you peace of mind … Paving and making your own path sometimes it gets lonely and kind of gets hard, but it’s worth it when you see people doing more [of] what you’re doing, and seeing them get inspired, and seeing them find their own true passion and actually dreaming again. That’s something I want to keep doing.

Here we see how Tokala wanted to give back to his community by paving a way for others to have the courage to pursue their own dreams and passion. Although being different from his peers as a Native and two-spirit individual made him feel alone, he expressed that he found peace with this reality knowing that others like him would follow. This quote highlights again how Tokala perceives his pursuit of a CS degree as benefitting not just himself but others as well; his peers who follow his lead on seeing creative solutions; his clients whose minds are changed about what Native people can accomplish; and here, future CS and STEM students who will come after him because he helped inspire them and create a path to succeed.

Hard Working: “I don’t know any other Native in my area that’s actually in [STEM], or doing something in it, because it’s very rare. Whatever I do, I affect the people after me, and that’s why I need to go beyond, and beyond more than other people especially being a Native twospirit individual in [STEM].”

Conclusions, Recommendations, and Next Steps

Tokala embraced being Native and two-spirit as he pursued his undergraduate CS degree. He saw these two intersecting identities as an advantage for persistence and innovative problem solving, and acknowledged how being two-spirit helped him be more creative in the classroom. Tokala also described how he overcame barriers when he was confronted with individuals who had prejudices against him because he was Native. Rather than feel discouraged, he challenged their perceptions and ultimately changed their perspectives about him. Finally, Tokala discussed how being the only two-spirit student in his CS program served as a motivator to keep going, because he was paving the way for others like him. Although he acknowledged a sense of loneliness, Tokala was looking to complete his degree not just for himself, but for the Native and two-spirit CS and STEM majors who would come after him.

Learning from the experiences that Tokala shared, we offer the following recommendations to institutions and departments, faculty and staff, and other practitioners seeking to help other Native and two-spirit students in CS persist as Tokala has:

  • Hire and retain Native faculty, particularly those who identify as two-spirit, so that students see themselves represented.

  • Increase numbers and reduce isolation for Native and two-spirit student cohorts through active recruitment.

  • Reform curriculum and pedagogy to welcome multiple ways to solve a problem.

  • Invest in programming that dismantles stereotypes about Native and two-spirit people and aids in the acknowledgement of prejudices and biases.

  • Support affinity groups for Native and two-spirit students, such as AISES and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and the Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapters and LGBTQIA2 organizations, that aid in creating a sense of community and belonging.

Additionally, the team is currently working on a full-length article, based on NAWC2 findings, to be published in a peer-reviewed journal on the centrality of giving back for Native undergraduate students in CS. We also have a short dissemination article coming up in Winds of Change, AISES’ quarterly publication.

Additional Research & Resources

To expand on what we learned from the NAWC2 project, in 2020 TERC and AISES began a partnership with the University of Georgia to conduct a project called Native STEM Portraits: A Longitudinal Mixed-Methods Study of the Intersectional Experiences of Native Learners and Professionals in STEM (NSF/HRD-2000619) (NSP). NSP is a broader, four-year, mixed-methods project that addresses factors that support or hinder the persistence of Native individuals, with a particular focus on women and two-spirit individuals, in multiple STEM fields across higher education and the professions. To learn more about the NSP goals and project team, please visit: www.terc.edu/projects/native-stem-portraits/.

For more information about the NAWC2 project, our partners, and our funders, please visit:

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We are grateful to Katie Yao for her assistance with researching literature. We are also very thankful to Shanadeen Begay, Rochelle Larson, Stephanie Masta, Frieda McAlear, Allison Scott, Kimberly Scott, and all members of the Women of Color in Computing Researcher/Practitioner Collaborative (WOCCC) for supporting us in the overall NAWC2 project and for providing feedback on early findings. This material is based, in part, upon work supported by the WOCCC, a collaboration between the Kapor Center and the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology at Arizona State University, and the National Science Foundation under Grant No. HRD-2000619. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the WOCCC or the National Science Foundation.


Christina B. Silva, B.S.W., is a Research Associate at TERC. She began her career as a researcher through her participation in the TERC Scholars Program, a research internship opportunity for undergraduate students of color offered at TERC. Over the last three years, she has engaged in qualitative research focused on the lived experiences of women and girls of color in STEM education and professions. She has also assisted on research conducted by the American Institute of Physics TEAM-UP Task Force. She holds a Bachelor of Social Work from Simmons University.

Nuria Jaumot-Pascual, Ph.D., is a Research Scientist at TERC. She researches the experiences in STEM education and careers of populations that live at the intersection of interlocking marginalities, with an emphasis on gender/sexual identity and race/ ethnicity. She co-leads three current NSF-funded projects with Dr. Ong: a longitudinal study of the experiences of Native students and professionals in STEM; a qualitative meta-synthesis on the experiences of women of color in computing and technology; and a project that will develop modules to teach qualitative metasynthesis methods to early career scholars of color. She specializes in qualitative meta-synthesis and visual methods. She holds a doctorate in Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methodologies from the University of Georgia.

Maria (Mia) Ong, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Scientist at TERC. For over twenty years, she has researched the lived experiences of women of color and members of other minoritized groups in STEM higher education and professions, with emphases on qualitative research and syntheses projects. She currently leads three projects, funded by the National Science Foundation, with Nuria Jaumot-Pascual (TERC), Kathy DeerInWater (AISES), and Matthew Madison (University of Georgia). Dr. Ong is a past member of the NSF Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering and currently serves on the National Academies Committee to Address the Underrepresentation of Women of Color in Tech. She holds a doctorate in Social and Cultural Studies in Education from the University of California at Berkeley.

Kathy DeerInWater, Ph.D., is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She joined AISES in October 2014 and completed her Doctoral degree in Ecology at the University of California, Davis in September 2015. As a long-time member of the AISES family, Dr. DeerInWater brings first-hand experience and passion to AISES’ mission of increasing the representation of Native people in STEM studies and careers. Dr. DeerInWater oversees program development, implementation, and evaluation for all AISES projects, serving young students to senior-level professionals. Dr. DeerInWater also engages in research to better understand the impact of AISES and more generally what makes Native people successful in STEM.


Jacobs, S., Thomas, W., Lang, S. (Eds.). (1997). Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality. University of Illinois Press.

Pawley, A. L. (2019). Learning from small numbers: Studying ruling relations that gender and race the structure of U.S. engineering education. Journal of Engineering Education, 108 (1), 13-31. https://doi.org/10.1002/jee.20247

Smith, L. T., Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (Eds.). (2018). Indigenous and decolonizing studies in education: Mapping the long view. Routledge.

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Christina B. Silva, Nuria Jaumot-Pascual, Maria Ong, Kathy DeerInWater

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"I think around the box"

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