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Alaskan Gets Special Invitation To The State Of The Union Address
by Erica Martinson - Alaska Dispatch News
Lydia Doza
WASHINGTON -- On Tuesday, an Alaskan will attend the State of the Union address, President Barack Obama's last such speech to Congress, as a guest of the White House, sitting in the first lady's box.

Lydia Doza, 24, is involved with the Obama administration's "Generation Indigenous" initiative, a program that aims to improve the lives and futures of young Native people. She came to the program through her involvement with the the Center of Native American Youth, a group she works with to do community outreach encouraging students -- particularly girls -- to get involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- known as "STEM" fields.

Every year, the White House invites about 20 Americans to sit with first lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address, often representing issues the president will discuss. This year's invitees include Doza and two people Obama met on the campaign trail in 2008. The White House also announced plans for an empty chair in memory of gun violence victims. Last year's invited guests included students, a soldier, an astronaut and a slew of people who wrote letters to the president over the course of the year.

Doza's invitation to the State of the Union comes after a year of heightened focus on Alaska in D.C. -- from the president's own visit to an Alaska-grown Christmas tree adorning the lawn of the Capitol.

The software engineering student was called upon by the White House as a young Native American leader who encourages youth to get involved in science.

When she works with children, she tries "to be a good role model for them, being present and telling them how it can be fun, instead of just work, because I know it can be a little overwhelming to people, especially if you don't understand how technology works," Doza said. "So I try to make it a little bit more approachable, I guess."

And she encourages Native children in particular: "I try to be a presence to them to let them know that someone like them is getting a higher education," Doza said.

That includes activities like "an hour of code" that she's planning right now, "where we open it up to the community and have students come in and we'll walk them through a programming exercise that's available online for free."

One of Doza's favorite projects to do with children involves a Play-Doh-like product called "squishy circuits" that conducts electricity. "It's completely nontoxic, and it's cool because we can have kids as young as ... three years old playing with electricity, and it's completely safe," Doza said.

Doza is particularly excited about meeting Michelle Obama.

"It's like a dream come true. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I'm really glad to get the opportunity to do that," she said.

Doza is in her fifth year at the Oregon Institute of Technology, the only public polytechnic university in the Pacific Northwest. After three years studying mechanical engineering and a 6-month internship in the field, Doza decided to go in a different direction and study software engineering.

For now, she is focusing on working with GPS and mapping software. She hopes to one day work for Garmin, which she's heard is a good company to work for, she said.

Doza grew up in Anchorage, where she was raised by her grandmother and actively involved in the Native community, she said. She belonged to a dance group with Inupiaq, Tsimshian and Haida members, and her grandmother produced Native artwork, she said.

"My earliest earliest memories were being on stage with my family singing" in the group made up of several tribes from the Southeast region, Doza said.

Doza's interest in STEM was sparked by her involvement with the FIRST Robotics program at Dimond High School in Anchorage. The program "opened my eyes to what going into STEM really meant," she said. She traveled outside Alaska for the first time as part of the program and got to design a robot from scratch.

"I just really loved that process of being able to design something and actually make it a real thing. And that was just really eye-opening for me," Doza said.

But the 24-year-old student never quite expected to get an invitation to join the first lady at the State of the Union address.

"Someone just called me from the White House. I was in class, and then they sent me a text message," Doza said. "And I couldn't believe it -- I was like, 'Nobody just gets text messages from the White House.' So I almost didn't reply, actually."

"I am really, really excited to even just get to attend, let alone be a special guest," Doza said.

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