There is a significant amount of push to encourage girls in Information Technology. A good number of initiatives have been conducted in order to get more female students excited about Computer Science subjects. I have participated in several of such initiatives, including a year-long outreach program as a Google Anita Borg scholar in 2014/2015 and as part of a committee that launched the Women in Computer Science society at the University of Cape Town. While these initiatives are very necessary, given the low number of girls in IT-related fields at most institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is important not to forget the male students. This was even more apparent when I received several mentorship requests from both undergraduate and postgraduate male students in Computer Science. These requests, and the overall importance of mentorship, motivated me to start an informal but structured mentorship program for both male and female students.

In two days of putting out the call for students to voluntarily sign up for the mentorship program, 40 students expressed an interest to participate. Of these, 73% were male students while 27% were female students. These numbers reflect the average composition of most Computer Science classes, with some classes containing as low as just one or two female students. Further, these numbers indicate that while we encourage more female students to study IT-related courses, the existing male students should equally be mentored.

At the beginning of the mentorship program, I conducted a survey in order to understand the background and expectations of the participants. 83% of the students indicated that they had never participated in any mentorship program, either as a mentor or a mentee. This cements the fact that there is a huge gap that needs to be addressed so that education and support to learners do not just end in the classroom. The need to fill this gap was further demonstrated by the emails that students sent at the inception of the program, which show that students would take up mentorship opportunities if such opportunities are offered. Hence, it is safe to say that the absence of mentorship may not be a sign of a lack of willingness by students, but a sign of a lack of initiative in an institution.

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Participants’ prior experience with mentorship
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Excerpts of students’ emails showing that they appreciate mentorship if offered

Incidentally, 67% of the students who expressed an interest in the mentorship program have cumulative G.P.As of at least 3.0 out of 4.0. This might indicate that the students who perform well academically are more inclined to seek opportunities for self-improvement. This means that we need to put in more effort to encourage students who may not have high academic performance, to take part in mentorship programs that could lead to better performance and  holistic growth.

It was important for me to understand the expectations that the students had when joining the mentorship program. The responses from the students are summarized below:

  • To gain exposure to opportunities and information outside the classroom. Such exposure includes participation in tech events, applying for scholarships and grants and the opportunity to network with peers and leaders in the industry.
    • 60% of the students indicated that they had not participated or attended a tech event while at the university.
    • 63% of the students indicated that they were not aware of scholarship and grant opportunities that they could apply for, with 93% indicating that they had not been shortlisted or awarded any scholarship or grant.
  • To improve soft skills.
    • 80% of the participants indicated that they need to work on their soft skills.
  • To become an all-rounded student.
  • To learn from peers.
    • 83% of the students indicated that they had not been involved in any peer-to-peer group where they could learn from each other.
  • To improve innovation and programming skills.
  • To participate in initiatives that encourage female students in Computer Science.

Conducting this baseline survey was important because the aim was not to structure the mentorship program according to my own understanding,  but according to what the students needed. Therefore, the responses above formed the basis of the activities and initiatives that were planned for the mentorship program. For example, in order to expose the students to opportunities and information outside the classroom, I have continually shared  information on opportunities and tapped into my networks to create some opportunities for them. Several students have participated in various events so far:

  • One female student received a full scholarship from the Anita Borg Institute to attend the 2016 Grace Hopper Conference in Houston. She was the first student from Kenya Methodist University to ever attend GHC.
  • Four male students and two female students participated in the 2016 ACM-Dev conference as student volunteers. They not only provided logistical support during the conference, they also had full access to listen to the conference presentations and network with the other participants. As a result of this network, the students were offered a potential opportunity for an exchange program. They also received certificates of participation during the conference’s closing ceremony.  For all the students, this was a first time to participate as student volunteers in an academic Computer Science conference.
  • One female student was selected to participate in CodeForChange but a lack of funds limited her travel.
  • Four female students participated in a workshop that I hosted on Women Techmakers Scholarship program (formerly Google Anita Borg) where they networked with students from 15 universities in Kenya. These students all later applied for the 2017 Women TechMaker scholarship.

In order to improve soft skills among the students, I  have so far organized two workshops to address this, where Ms.Krystal Musyoki conducted the sessions. Ms. Musyoki has vast experience mentoring students both at the University of Cape Town with several programs including the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program and currently under the Greenhorn mentorship program at the University of Nairobi. Mentorship is an integral part of her professional life, where she gets involved in different mentorship programs annually.  She trained the students on skills such as personal branding and professional communication. Ms. Musyoki and I will conduct a writing workshop in early 2017.

To contribute towards the students’ understanding of innovation, Mr. Conrad Akunga, director and co-founder at Innova Limited, gave a talk on the importance of mentorship in the workplace and using innovation as a tool for active change. Mr. Akungas has just been profiled in the 2016 Business Daily’s Top 40 under 40. Mr. Akunga is passionate about mentorship, which he demonstrates by implementing a teaching culture in his organization. He challenged the students to think outside the box and to attempt to solve local problems using audacious technological approaches.  This emphasis was necessitated by a discussion in which we noted the declining quality of research projects undertaken by students.

In addition to the examples above, a number of plans are in place to meet the students’ expectations. For example, several students have volunteered to participate in Google’s HashCode competition, which will contribute towards innovation and programming skills. Further, one student has volunteered to conduct a full training on the use of GitHub, which will not only contribute to the students learning from each other, but also to their programming skills. Overall, involvement in these initiatives are contributing towards not just academic skills, but also towards all-rounded students.

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The students at the ACM-Dev conference

The highlight that has emerged during this brief period of the mentorship program is that mentorship should be about immersing the students in experiences, as opposed to talking to students about the experiences.  Mentorship programs should move away from the ‘meetings-only’ model to a more immersive model where students get their hands dirty in active participation and learning.  In summary, the four-month experience teaches four main lessons:

  • Conducting a survey at the beginning of a mentorship program helps the mentor to understand the participants and their expectations. A baseline survey could also be used at the end of a program as a comparison tool between the start and the end.
  • It is important to structure mentorship programs according to the mentees’ expectations.
  • An immersive mentorship program that throws the students ‘into the wild’ gives a more fulfilling experience than one where mentorship is mostly based on mentee-mentor meetings.
  • An all-gender mentorship program contributes to a rich environment where both genders of students can learn to work together, as will be the case when they work in the industry.

I will run this phase of the mentorship program until March 2017, when I will conduct an end-of-program survey and interviews with the students, perform an impact analysis, and consequently write a paper based on the results.

Finally, here is a short video of three of the mentees talking about what the mentorship program means to them.

Happy Holidays!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “An all-gender mentorship program for Computer Science students

  1. Work well done Dr Chao.
    Our society really need this kind of Mentorship and especially for girls. I’ m a student and a Software Developer in the banking industry, how i wish i met you several years ago when i was starting my career or even before i joined university.I would have made a lot of impact to myself but better late than never.
    Thanks for your endless effort

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