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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 served as an information and communications technology educator in Rwanda from 2011-2013.
National Journal
Lyla Fujiwara
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Lyla Fujiwara
April 25, 2014, 10:45 a.m.

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.git­


Are you part of the demo­graph­ic that is the Next Amer­ica? Are you a cata­lyst who fosters change for the next gen­er­a­tion? Or do you know someone who is? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­ And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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