2012 TechGirls Program Broadens Horizons
By Anastasya Lloyd-Damnjanovic
IIP Staff Writer
July 17, 2012
Tech-savvy teenage girls from seven Middle Eastern countries and the Palestinian Territories traveled to the United States for the first meeting of the State Department’s new TechGirls exchange program June 25 to July 17.
The 25 teenagers represented Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories, Tunisia and Yemen and came from a colorful variety of cultures, but all shared a love of technology and a willingness to broaden their horizons.
Launched by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the TechGirls initiative brings Arab-speaking teenage girls from Middle Eastern countries together for a three-week youth exchange in Washington designed to empower them to pursue careers in science and technology. Participants range in age from 15 to 17, and divide their time between technology camp, meetings with business and government leaders, visits to high-tech companies and community service projects.
In line with Clinton’s vision of “smart power,” which takes advantage of the full range of diplomatic tools at the State Department’s disposal, including technology, TechGirls seeks to advance girls’ participation in technology by developing important technological skills and enabling them to learn from American high-tech companies and entrepreneurs. TechGirls is modeled after TechWomen, a similar international initiative for women that involves mentorships with American women leaders in the U.S. technology industry.
TechGirls participants received two weeks — or about 60 hours — of rigorous instruction in Web development, iOS and Android apps, 3-D game design and animation, and programming in C++ and/or Java at the Wonder-Space Computer and Technology Camp at American University. In addition to meeting with various state and federal government officials, the participants attended events with tech companies and NGOs like Google, Facebook, Do Something, Development Seed and Global Kids, among others. Aside from skill-development and networking, the participants benefited from TechGirls in less tangible ways.
For 15-year-old Nour Abdel Latif, her experience with other participants and women technology leaders through TechGirls reinforced her belief that women are as capable of mastering technology as men. Though Latif herself has used technology from an early age and plans to work with it in the future to facilitate social change, many more men work in the technology sector than women in her home country of Lebanon, she said.
“Everybody underestimates women, and we want to prove that no, that’s not true,” she said, alluding to the public perception of girls’ abilities in Lebanon and her aim in participating in TechGirls. “We are also smart, we can do whatever guys can do, and we’re true leaders.”
16-year-old Najat Al-Qubati also wants to invalidate the stereotype of women as denizens of the kitchen in her own country of Yemen. Girls planning to study technology often meet resistance from their friends, families and acquaintances, she said, because technology is still viewed largely as a man’s discipline. Instead of technology, they often recommend that women study architecture, interior designing, “or something more girly.”
“But actually, it’s not just for guys,” Al-Qubati said. “I think that technology is a field that is made for both men and women, and I believe that all of us can do really [well] in it.” She said it is critical for girls to assimilate into the “technological era” that we live in today.
Al-Qubati’s participation in the TechGirls program also introduced her to American people and their way of life. Al-Qubati was especially impressed by the open-mindedness and approachability of the Americans she encountered in Washington.
“American people in general are very friendly. I like the way that they’re nonjudgmental,” Al-Qubati said.
“In my country, if they see a person without the hijab, they’ll look at her, right? But over here, [Americans] see me wearing my scarf, they don’t see anything! They’ll talk to me nicely, they’re very friendly. They don’t care about who you are, it’s, like, the way you talk, your personality, it’s not your looks anymore,” she explained.
Though many TechGirls participants said they learned about distinctive and positive aspects of American culture, others said that they thought American and Arab kids were fundamentally similar. Among the latter group was Rozaleen Zadha, a 16-year-old from the Palestinian Territories who is interested in computer programming and hopes to study biotechnology at university.
“I stayed with teenagers and I learned more about American culture, and we visit[ed] many places, we met different people, but I think they’re not that different,” Zadha said of the cultural differences between young Americans and Arabs. “We’re the same, we’re teenagers.”
With this realization of fundamental similarities came numerous friendships among the TechGirls participants and with the Americans they met. 16-year-old Tunisian Nada Lakhal, who hopes to invent new technologies, said the TechGirls program had given her many strong friendships in addition to knowledge and life skills. She expressed the hope that others like her would continue to receive the opportunity to participate in the program in the future.
“I’m so glad I’m here, and I think it will be a very good experience for all the other girls,” Lakhal said. “All the other girls from the next generation hopefully will [come] here and have so much fun.”