How I Used My Computer-Science Degree in the Peace Corps While Serving in Rural Africa
The perspective and inspiration you gain from service is more valuable than a fancy title or bullet point on a resume.
Lyla Fujiwara, 25, completed two years of Peace Corps service in Rwanda in December 2013. As an information- and communications-technology educator, she worked with local community members at the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology in Gashora and with entrepreneurs in Kigali, Rwanda, to improve their computer skills. She also led a camp for young women called Camp TechKobwa.
Fujiwara is part of the 22 percent of Peace Corps volunteers who report that they are members of a racial or ethnic minority. The Peace Corps recently announced plans to intensify efforts to recruit in underrepresented communities so that the agency's volunteer force reflects the diversity that increasingly defines the American people. Fujiwara shared her experience with The Next America.
In May 2010 I graduated from an Ivy League school with a bachelor's degree in computer science. All around me, classmates were securing entry-level jobs at the Googles and Microsofts of the world.
Compelled by the masses, one day during my senior year I found myself at an interview across from a very nice man who worked on printer-interfacing software. I sat there smiling and asking questions while a small voice in the back of my head screamed: "What am I doing here?"
I wasn't familiar with all the technical jargon my interviewer used, but more damning was the fact that I didn't care. I didn't get the job.
Nontraditional paths after university weren't readily discussed in the computer-science department. So I felt like a complete heretic when I began to consider the Peace Corps. As I went through the application process, I fretted about what this unconventional decision meant with respect to having a "normal" technology career. I wondered if what I had learned at Brown would become outdated after two years. Everyone was excited about hiring new computer-science graduates, but was there an expiration date on this enthusiasm? And in communities struggling to meet their basic needs, would my technical skills even be useful?
Still, something felt instinctively right about my decision to apply to the Peace Corps. After being in school for most of my life, I wanted a job with purpose and variety where I could see my skills impacting lives. In September 2011, I left home to serve in Rwanda as an education volunteer.
My initial fears about whether my skill set would be relevant in Rwanda were quickly assuaged. In short order, I was running two computer labs for my 270-student high school, administering the campus's technical equipment, and writing and teaching a computer literacy curriculum for the freshman class. I was also teaching the 20 girls who were focusing their studies on computer science and C++ programming.
It turns out the need for information-technology training in schools and other places where computers are used is huge.
When most people are asked about the major challenges surrounding technology in developing countries, their first thought is a lack of equipment. This is definitely a problem, but what's more frustrating is the lack of IT know-how to effectively use the equipment that's available. The primary school five minutes away from the high school where I worked had literally hundreds of donated laptops sitting in boxes because the IT teacher only had one week of training on how to use them. This was just the sort of unfortunate story I heard repeated by many of my fellow volunteers. The upside, though, is that one person with IT skills — like myself — can make a huge difference and put hundreds of dollars of existing equipment to good use.
Combining technology with education can have an even greater impact. Learning with technology fosters a culture of problem-solving and experimentation, which are skills that education systems around the world struggle to reinforce. Many students in my class subscribed to the philosophy that all problems had a single answer, and that the teacher was responsible for telling them this answer so they could memorize it for the test. I had little love for this methodology, so I focused on pushing my students to solve the problems themselves. For the first few assignments, I simply asked them to find errors in programs or fill in blanks. The computer would correct them when they were wrong and they could try again. By the end of the course, the students were independently programming a text-based version of tic-tac-toe.
I was not the only one using technology to reinforce critical thinking; local entrepreneurs have started holding high school technology competitions, and there are two burgeoning technology hubs in Kigali that organize events, lectures, and classes. Rwanda also recently hosted Transform Africa, a technology summit that included a youth component.
Furthermore, Peace Corps volunteers are especially well positioned to bridge an important gap: the divide between where most of the IT is happening (in cities) and where most of the population lives (in rural communities). This challenge of reaching the rural population was the idea behind my largest Peace Corps project, TechKobwa. TechKobwa is a girl's computer camp where students from disadvantaged backgrounds are exposed to and, hopefully, inspired by technology. Participants programmed games, created their own blogs, and attended panel discussions. Most classes were taught by local IT professionals.
Organizing the TechKobwa project was one of the defining parts of my Peace Corps experience and was made possible by the sheer excitement both Rwandans and the Peace Corps community had for technology projects.
The week before I returned to the United States, I contemplated how the Peace Corps affected me, and if it was worth it. I had been away from home for 30 months. From the start, Peace Corps trainers tout the invaluable soft skills learned during service, including adaptability, independence, cross-cultural communication, and a drastic lowering of standards as to what qualifies as a toilet.
They were right. As promised, I had to pull from all of these skills during my time in Rwanda. Thinking about my friends and coworkers, I realized that I also have a burgeoning networking of worldwide contacts that will come in handy if I decide to work in technology and development.
But, I was also immensely touched by the sincerity and humor of the other Peace Corps volunteers and Rwandans I worked with during my service, as well as the unimaginable kindness of my neighbors and, most poignantly, of my students. Their sheer drive, intelligence, and compassion were contagious.
The night before school ended, one of my brightest students talked about how she hadn't been interested in her computer studies, but after my class discovered she had a passion for programming. Others spoke about their ambitions for university and technology degrees. I left the classroom reeling with emotion.
Ultimately, the Peace Corps volunteer experience gives Americans the opportunity to invest in people — sometimes people who are dramatically different than them. The perspective, admiration, and inspiration you gain from service is more valuable than a fancy title or bullet point on a resume. It's something I will carry with me as I continue on to whatever comes next.
Lyla Fujiwara served as an information and communications technology educator in Rwanda from 2011-2013. Follow Lyla on Twitter at @CeruleanOtter or visit her web portfolio at ceruleanotter.github.io.
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