Michelle Obama smells amazing. I could never put my finger on it, but when she hugged me with her incredibly toned arms, the first thing I thought was holy shit Michelle Obama is giving me a hug, and secondly, wow she smells so good. It was a sweltering Washington D.C. July afternoon but the First Lady seemed unbothered by the heat instead she brought inspiration, poise, and grace with her.
She was speaking on her Let Girls Learn initiative: “You all are here today because someone believed in you because someone gave you the chance to be everything you would want to be.” That line stuck with me then and continues to remind me both that I am worthy of my opportunities, and so are the amazing people around me. But on that July afternoon, I was thinking, what did I want to be? Who believes in me? And what sort of girl do I have the potential to be?
I asked myself these questions frequently, especially in moments of doubt. I was certain Michelle Obama, the Let Girls Learn Program, UN Foundation, and U.S. State Department got it all wrong when they decided to send me to Rwanda for a little over three weeks for a global, “women in STEM” or WiSci, program. It was a summer of is this really happening right now? Why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve to be here. That thought was on loop on the plane-ride from Portland to Chicago to Washington D.C. to Addis Ababa to Kigali. And on the bus from Kigali International to our compound at Gashora Girls Academy in Eastern Province, Rwanda.
But once I got to Rwanda, I was able to meet the 120 girls from eight African countries and from around the U.S… And after we shared a meal together, I realized, we’re all in this together. It was three hard weeks of tech boot camp and I started with zero coding experience. I worked alongside girls from Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. While we had moments of cultural difference, misunderstanding, and frustration, we shared moments of brilliance, joy, and success. Together we learned C++, built Arduino models, and prototyped a solar-powered Wifi hotspot.
At the very end of my experience in Rwanda, I was able to present my tech-prototype to The First Lady of Rwanda Jeanette Kagame. I held my head high as I presented on the lack of internet access in developing areas (4 billion people do not have access to Wi-Fi), and the emerging technologies that can better connect people globally. As I sat on the plane from Kigali to Addis to Dublin to Washington D.C, to Chicago and finally to Portland, I knew that not only did other people believe in me, but I believed in myself.
Three years later, I am at an all-female liberal arts college and pursuing a social science major. My experience in Rwanda (all thanks to Michelle Obama) working alongside 100 other girls, taught by a mostly female staff played a large role in my choosing a women’s college. While I have no intentions of majoring in computer science or engineering, learning C++ taught me a new way to solve problems. And learning about hardware and software made me more tech savvy so I could troubleshoot my daily technology problems. Being in Rwanda surrounded by girls from other countries showed me how global technology really is. And the friendships I cemented in Rwanda continue to grow and flourish.
Tech boot camps aren’t just for aspiring engineers and computer programmers, they’re for everyone. Every single person can benefit from learning how to code, communication, and work together. I am where I am now because I believe in myself. And I believe in you, too! Next time you get the opportunity to take a risk, remember that it’s your chance to be everything you want to be.