By Kerria Weaver
Ashley Lomboy of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe took an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) from a young age. This fascination led her to become a Global Information Security Manager at Corning Optical Fiber and Cable, and later, founder of the Waccamaw Siouan STEM Studio.
The Border Belt Independent spoke with Lomboy about her many accomplishments and how she is making a difference in her community.
Q. Seeing how you identify as being a part of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe, how has that shaped you into the person you are?
I think every person has their own unique history and culture. I think that Indigenous people have that additional connection to being on their traditional lands, which is not something many others who immigrated or migrated here don’t have. It’s that uniqueness of connection to who I am, not just metaphorically, but within our native culture. I think that the shaping of it really has come from strong family ties and family values that I was raised with within my tribal community that are all really tight. There are examples of how our culture has continued to survive over hundreds of years. So being raised in that way, it’s been really special and has really shaped who I am today in valuing family and traditions as a part of our daily lives.
Q. What accomplishment would you say are you most proud of?
I think the greatest accomplishment, other than my children, is winning the AISES national award for 2023. If you’re not familiar with AISES, it stands for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Every year across North America they choose native Indigenous professionals to win that award. Mine was in indigenous excellence, which is the involvement and the incorporation of your culture into science. I was nominated for that award and hundreds of submittals were sent in from state and federal tribes across North America. Through all that I won the award. It was an awesome time. I think it’s been one of the largest awards anyone from our tribe has ever won on a national level, especially in the field of science.
Q. Outside of working at an IT security job, what other interesting things did you pursue at the time and after?
My passion is really around helping my tribal community. Indigenous youth in STEM is one of my passions, also around just advocacy. I’m an advocate for Indigenous people. Some folks may feel threatened by that word but I don’t see it necessarily as advocacy. I’m giving it a title because that’s what other people call it. I do my best to sit at tables where we’re underrepresented to help make sure that our voice is being heard in the right places. I speak out whenever I see or hear about things that we may not be included in, offering a different point of view, or different perspective, and I don’t mind sharing that with others. I didn’t go into it saying or wanting to be an advocate or be called that in any way. I think that’s what the definition of it is, though.
Q. When did you take an interest in STEM?
It probably started in middle school. I was one of the good kids, which basically means I didn’t get in trouble a lot. If you were a good kid, you got to go to this very special class, a computer class. It was only for the good kids who were behaving in class. We would go in there and get on these old, big-screen floppy drive computers and we would play Oregon Trail, Hangman, and many other games on the computer. I had so many questions. I remember when I saw my first GUI screen and the first time seeing a mouse go across the screen. Thinking back, that feels like a long time ago, but it was really only 35 years ago. I just had a lot of questions. I remember asking my parents about getting a computer at home and instead got a four wheeler for Christmas. All the kids had to agree on one gift for Christmas so there was either a four wheeler or computer, and they got the four wheeler. Next year, they got the computer. I remember connecting to AOL dial-up all the way up until I left home, which was in 2001. I was always interested in how this works and I have always been a very inquisitive person.
Q. What is STEM day all about?
STEM Day is really about us bringing Indigenous youth together, and also bringing Western science and indigenous knowledge together. You can see them side by side, giving honor to both of them. We want you to explore Western science, making medicines, how to make makeup, explore fossils, horticulture, engineering with robotics. We want them to experience those things alongside honoring our elders. We had an elder lounge where the elders came in and got to experience virtual reality and 3D printers. Elders were honored that day. Youth were coming in, asking questions, and learning from their elders. They heard stories about their upbringing and things they learned, sharing that with the community.
We also explore Lake Waccamaw. We gave boat tours to those who have never been on the lake. It’s a privilege to be able to go to Lake Waccamaw. A lot of folks from the tribe don’t have boats or even access to the lake. For many of them, this was their first time ever going out on Lake Waccamaw. It was an amazing time. We had 14 different workshops being presented. We had 13 or 14 different partners and about 400 people come to the event, 300 of those were youth and elders who participated. We had about 80 chaperones. We had 13 different tribes represented during STEM Day.
Q. When was STEM Day established?
We found the STEM studio January 1, 2020. That first year we had all these big plans, but due to Covid, we shifted models to just mailing STEM kits that were really engaging. We mailed out close to 100 STEM kits that first year. The second year we did mostly that too. We also started a fish camp that year and did STEM Day later that year.
Q. What feedback or comments do you receive from people who participate in STEM Day?
Magical. A lot of them felt like it was a welcome home, a homecoming for our people of sorts. STEM Day had a lot of significance to it, not only the location and the land, but historically. Lake Waccamaw is our ancestral home. Those around the lake don’t acknowledge that. As long as that town has existed, the acknowledgement of Waccamaw Siouan people as being the original people of that space and stewards of that land and water has not occurred. That full acknowledgement of saying this is your land and this is your lake has never been heard until STEM Day.
For STEM Day, I worked with Lake Waccamaw State Park Superintendent Toby Hall, an amazing man who works so hard on STEM Day to make sure everything was exactly the way it needed to be. Whenever we opened up, Toby started out with, “Welcome home.” A sea of native people from about 200 or 300 people came there and they were just telling them, “Welcome home, this is your land.” That acknowledgement even today still gives me chills. Elders have died wanting to hear some type of acknowledgement that this land was theirs.
This doesn’t mean we’re telling the state park to give us back the land or get off of it. That acknowledgement that we’re the original people of that land, it’s needed and necessary. It was unseeded land that we were forced off of and was stolen from us. For those reasons acknowledgement is key.
Q. How do you see the STEM program growing in the future?
We want to continue establishing and improving our annual programs, which is our Yaccune fish camp that we have in April and our STEM Day that happens in September. We’re also kicking off a new project where we plan to reforest longleaf pine and bring back cultural burns onto our land.
Long term, I would like to see after-school programs. It would be great to have a stable after-school program that helps improve literacy and mathematics, a program that really will help us elevate our use beyond just our events.
To sustain and to get to that point, we need to do more. Just being realistic, you’re not going to learn how to breathe better by coming to STEM Day, but you might be inspired to learn more about it. That’s really the goal, to have that sustainable, long-term program that can help move our tribe forward.