What does it take to inspire women in developing countries to achieve their educational dreams? A group of women in higher education moved to Rwanda for the purpose of educating the next wave of Rwandan leaders in information and communications technology (ICT).
The American-based, top-ranked college of engineering, Carnegie Mellon University–Rwanda campus, held its first ever graduation ceremony since it started its operations in Rwanda back in 2012. The ceremony was held on July 24. Among the 22 graduates were five outstanding women.
Roads lead to Rwanda
Back in 2008, when Dr. Hedda Schmidke was sitting in a car on a highway in Hamburg, Germany, she heard a radio report about Rwandan women entrepreneurs. The reporter talked about how they were building their own companies and developing their countries after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
“I was really amazed by the courage of those women and as a German I know what it means to rebuild a country after a devastating war,” said the PhD holder in computer science from the University of Hamburg, Germany. She immediately considered how she could join them and bring her help. Her second idea was to find a position as an ICT professor in Rwanda, but she had no idea how it would materialize. Little did she know that her next destination would be in the Land of a Thousand Hills.
After some weeks, she found out that Carnegie Mellon University was going to build a campus in Rwanda and that it was looking for ICT professors. She was awed by the coincidence of the two circumstances and decided to send her job application. Fortunately she got a job as an associate director at Carnegie Mellon University–Rwanda campus. She has been teaching ICT-related skills to the group of 22 graduate students since 2012.
Like Schmidke, Cathy Bishop also unexpectedly moved to Rwanda from the US when one of her friends got a job at the campus and jokingly suggested that she should join her. Bishop decided to come over as a visitor for three months just to look for career prospects. Within a month she was hired.
Bishop, who is also an instructor and software engineer, has been helping the students with technical support and computer science works. She was jubilant with her students’ educational achievement.
A ground-breaking graduation
Among the guests of honor at the graduation ceremony, which took place at the Serena Hotel in Kigali, was Dr. Jelena Kova˘cevi´c. She is the head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University PA. Kova˘cevi´c remarked, “I came over to attend this ceremony and was impressed by how hard our female students worked to complete the two-year program leading to a master degree in computer science.”
She said that out of 22 student graduates, 25% are women, and that it is a great achievement in itself. She noted that the program is creating a new wave of technological leaders, some of whom will be women: “These are smart women who are capable to make a difference in Rwanda social and economic development.”
Susan Brown, a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado was excited to see these women graduating despite the many challenges they went through. “Even in the U.S. we have such kind of proportion of women graduating in engineering schools.”
She pointed out that in Rwanda, women are more interested in ICT, and it is easy for them to get scholarships. She noted that the policy of the government to promote women plays to their advantages.
However despite all the promotion of women in ICT, Brown said that girls should be encouraged to join programs like these and that it will help raise their quotas in science and technology fields. “If they don’t apply there is no way the government can support them to reach their potential.”
Dr. Kova˘cevi´c noted that there are some clichés and pre-conceptions that perhaps engineering is a man’s field, but “there is nothing preventing women from doing this kind of work. I am saying this from my personal experience because I am so passionate about it. This is one of the most wonderful jobs you can have in the world.”
About the graduates
Among Schmidke’s students are five smart and hardworking women who have just graduated with master’s degrees in information technology. “Our students are really amazing,” she said. “Women that just graduated are very successful entrepreneurs who are running ICT companies.”
One of the students, Marie Claire Murekatete, just graduated with a master’s degree in computer science. She recently got married and had been combining her career as a senior software engineer at Rwanda Development Board with her studies, in addition to family
Murekatete said that young girls are reluctant to join science and technology fields as they perceive them as difficult subjects that are meant for men. Back in high school, she attended mathematics section. In her class there were only three girls out of 42 students.
Luckily she had always been at the top of her class since the time she was in primary school. Her father was the main driving force that encouraged her to always excel in her education; he rewarded her with gifts. Unfortunately her father and other members of her extended family were massacred during the 1994 genocide against the Tusti. She remained with her mother, who could not adequately provide for the family.
“The encouragement I used to get from my dad was no longer there,” noted Murekatete. Fortunately, she was still motivated to work hard and remain at the top of her class. “I kept going like that up to the time I graduated from the university and was on top of my class.”
Now that she has graduated, she is set for a successful career. She was recently selected for the 2014 Tech Women Emerging Leader award by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA). In September she is flying to the United States to join peers from Africa and Middle East in a strong network of women who are committed to advancing their career and pursuing their dreams while paving the way for those who follow.
Esther Kunda, a graduate of the master’s degree program in computer science, was fortunate
to belong to a family that understood how education could provide her with an advantage, so they pushed her to pursue all the opportunities she could. She said, “My father was the one who encouraged me to register at CMU – Rwanda and pursue this program.”
She said that traditionally, women in Rwanda have always considered science and engineering fields as fields that are hard and reserved for men. Kunda noted that women have been a majority in informal sector because they were not given enough of a chance to continue their education.
Now Rwandan women are slowly joining the formal sector and are embracing science and technology studies that are at the forefront of empowering them to be part of Rwanda’s social and economic development.
Esther’s mother had been her role model, as a career woman who successfully raised herself and her four siblings: “My mother has always been working at the post office in management position since I was a child and am going to emulate her.” She said that women should work hard to turn their dreams into realities.
It is Schmidke’s hope that the skills students have gained throughout the two-year program will shape the future of their careers and the companies they will be working for.