FARGO - When Judi Simley walked across the stage at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex yesterday, she earned more than just a diploma. She became the first Native American woman to graduate from North Dakota State University with a master's degree in software engineering.
But that's not the only first the 42-year-old mother of three can claim. When she graduated in 2009, Simley was the first Native American to graduate with a bachelor's degree in management information systems.
She was also the first in her family to attend post-secondary school.
"I'm very driven, and I'm about creating my own path," Simley says. "I'm very headstrong, so if I want to do something, I will get it done."
Simley's educational journey started back with an associate degree in record keeping from the North Dakota State College of Science, but she knew she wanted to eventually earn her bachelor's degree. She just wasn't sure what to study.
"I talked with my aunts and some family members, and they said mixing technology and business together would be very beneficial for my career," Simley says.
Plus, she's always had a knack for technology.
"I've always liked computers, even before I started any of my education. I would get a new calculator, and I would take it completely apart and put it back together...I would play with it for hours so I'd know everything about it," she says. "It's like reading a really good book - you're just trying to figure out what it's all about."
Her natural inclination toward technology gave her the confidence to embrace often being the only woman in her software engineering classes.
"I'm not your average person so I don't really look at (gender)," she says. "I look at someone as equal. I don't care what color or gender they are. A lot of my friends from school are guys, and they treat me like one of them."
Equality is a value Simley learned early on from her father. From her mother, Simley learned fierce pride.
That's why she requested to wear traditional Native American regalia for her ceremony, but was told by the university that she was not allowed to.
NDSU adheres to a policy of requiring graduation regalia in line with the American Council on Education, according to a statement provided by NDSU media relations coordinator Sadie Rudolph.
Consistent regalia keeps the focus on academic achievements of all students involved in the ceremony, according to the statement.
The pride Simley feels about her heritage is a facet of the motivation she leaned on during graduate school.
Balancing her course work with being a parent to three young children (aged 10, 8 and 2) as well as the two part-time jobs she held required a coordinated effort on several fronts.
Simley's parents live in Morton, N.D., but her mother travels to Fargo Tuesday through Thursday to help with childcare. Her husband, she says, has been a huge source of support throughout her education.
Plus, Simley wants to show her two daughters what they can accomplish with determination and ambition.
"I have a lot of internal motivation from my kids, but especially my girls, because if they can see their mom do it, they will think they can do it," Simley says.
But Simley isn't hoping to serve as an example just for her daughters; she wants all females to understand that the technology field awaits them.
"Technology is not scary, it's fascinating," she says. "I think that if you are really interested in something, you should do it. You will have support no matter what you do."
Simley says she's a great example of that exact concept because when she started working on her bachelor's degree, she didn't even know a computer had a language.
Now she's a software engineer at Tech Mahindra in Fargo with a master's degree in hand and a world of opportunities in front of her.
She plans to continue working for the company, which provides information technology services and solutions to a variety of global customers. But she thinks she may eventually want to share her passion and knowledge with other students through teaching.
If she does, she'll likely be the first to do something, because that's how she's lived her life so far.
"Even if you have just a spark of interest in technology, try it and go from there," she says. "If I can do it, anyone can do it."