Mentorship is not ‘counseling’

My second post on this blog was on the premise that quality education and mentorship cannot be separated. It is generally agreed that mentorship is an integral part of teaching, learning and contributing to the growth of students and professionals in all fields. However, there seems to be thinking that mentorship is tantamount to meeting with mentees, listening to their issues, giving advice if you can, and waiting for the next round of students or staff to knock on your door. While it just as well to give advice on various personal and professional issues that one’s mentees might have, this should be a small part, and certainly not the only part, of any mentorship. In fact, from my experience as a manager and a mentor, I dare say that this model is neither sustainable nor interesting.

I am a big proponent of active mentorship, which I define as ‘placing the mentee at the center of the process where a mentor mostly acts as a facilitator, connector, and guide’.  I discuss six themes that  I believe should form the basis of any active mentorship model that is beneficial to mentees and mentors.

1. Mentoring by example

It is difficult to guide people down a path that one has not been on. An enriching mentorship process is one where a mentor has felt the joy and pain of an experience enough to identify with the experiences of a mentee. Further, it would be difficult to teach mentees about soft skills like time-keeping, when tardiness is a mentor’s forte. It would be a challenge to ask students to write professionally when the mentor does not abide by the same standards. It is unacceptable to supervise or teach postgraduate students when one has not been through the process themselves. It would be problematic for a mentor to ask mentees to get involved in various activities and contribute to certain causes when the mentor does not make similar efforts. An enriching process is where a mentor wears the feathers, as well as the scars, that a mentee can admire, as well as learn from. Indeed, most good stories start with ‘how did you get that?’ or ‘I know you went through the same thing that I am going through now so I would like to learn how you handled it.’ Granted, intelligence allows us to extrapolate, predict and imagine, but evidence from my own mentorship experience and those of my students indicate that better mentorship is offered through lived example. Having said this, I subscribe to the thought that behind- the-desk mentorship should take the least quota of any mentorship program. This means that as much as a mentor might have a wealth of experience and qualifications, these should mostly act as an example and motivation to the mentees and not as the sole source of information or guidance. Thus, mentorship should largely be through immersion.

2. Mentoring by immersion

A crucial aspect of active mentorship is enabling mentees to be involved in activities outside the confines of their walls. This is because mentors are not, and should not be the be-all-end-all source of inspiration for their mentees. In fact, it is myopic if the only advice that mentees receive are those within the confines of their schools or offices. This means that mentors have the task of seeking opportunities, creating networks, and building platforms where mentees can step outside their comfort zones and learn what others have to offer. While some institutions tackle this by inviting guest speakers to talk to their students and employees, this is far from enough. Inviting the new neighbor’s children to play with your children inside your home might not expose your children to anything more than new children to play with.  Thus, examples of immersing mentees in ‘the world’ include:

  • Finding and creating collaborative sessions where mentees can interact and work with those outside their environment.
  • Outreach activities by mentees should not merely be a platform for speeches.  What about a session on designing a product? What about a session on the behind-the-scenes magic of the organization? What about a brief pair-mentoring between the visiting mentees and members of the host organization?
  • A pre-requisite of guest speaking should be a contributor who is willing to go all the way. It is simply not enough to invite one-time speakers who are never heard from again. Hence, apart from inviting guest speakers to speak to mentees, I believe that guests should be tasked to create opportunities and share platforms that mentees can take part in. If the guest speaker is not in a position to create or offer such opportunities, they can be invited to run a hands-on workshop on their area of expertise.

If we are to prepare our mentees for the world, we need to immerse them in the world. One way that we can show the world to our mentees is mentoring by sharing.

  3. Mentoring by sharing

When mentors possess the wealth of information that they do, it is easy to take for granted that mentees know the same things. While, in fact, the opposite might be true. This was even more apparent to me when I started my mentorship program and a lot of the information that I had acquired over the last couple of years was actually new to my mentees. It is not for lack of motivation or willingness that mentees might not know of opportunities that a mentor might be well versed with, it might just be for lack of guidance on where or how to look. With the plethora of information that the Internet has made available, it is possible that mentees might not know where to start. Hence,  a mentor’s contribution is to show the mentee how to fish and from what lakes. A mentor’s contribution is to actively share any new information on relevant opportunities and to challenge the mentees to try and fish for the opportunity. This way, mentees not only learn how to put themselves out there by expressing interest and submitting applications, but they also learn where to look the next time and to share this information with others. Hence, they learn how to be a mentor to others.

    4. Mentoring by mentees-becoming-mentors

Just like a child who is learning how to walk by holding onto an adult’s hands, mentees may need a mentor’s hand less and less as they grow. In fact, experience has shown me that once mentees get the spark of interest and motivation, a mentor’s work becomes much easier. For example, mentees can volunteer to teach a skill such that a mentor does not have to. Mentees can volunteer to organize an event such that a mentor does not have to. However, the trick to getting to this place is to allow mentees a room for free expression and to impart on them that the mentorship process is not a giver-taker scenario, but where they are expected to eventually take control of the process and fly with it. In fact, one of the best things about mentorship is just how much a mentor can learn.

  5. Mentoring by learning

One of the reasons why I am quite passionate about mentorship is because it is one of my sources of learning new knowledge and refreshing old knowledge.  From sharing many opportunities with my mentees, I have come across many others that I might not have been aware of if I did not take the time to look. From inviting guest facilitators to mentorship workshops, I have learnt from professionals outside my circle. From building connections that mentees can benefit from, I have met new people and learnt from their professions. Learning these things not only makes me a better professional, but it also makes me a much better mentor because when connections grow, it provides a wider selection of platforms that my mentees can participate in. The experience from one mentorship process builds a rich launchpad for the next one. One way that mentors can understand what experiences they are taking from one process to another is by measuring the impact of their mentorship.

      6. Mentoring by measuring

As a scientist, I believe in proof. But science aside, while it is just as well to spend time working with mentees, it is also as crucial to measure the impact of your contribution. The model that I suggest for this is:

  • Find out demography, expectations, areas of strength and weaknesses, at the beginning of the mentorship program. This information will help you model the program according to what your mentees require, and more.
  • Run a theme-based mentorship program. Group events and activities according to the themes of the program such that balance is checked and maintained so that all the themes of the program are met.
  • Prepare a post-event survey to understand if mentees met their objectives, for most of the events.
  • As much as possible, record mentees’ sentiments.
  • Conduct post-mentorship video interviews and surveys to compare this with the pre-mentorship survey. Not only can this inform future programs it will also measure the impact of the current mentorship program.

It goes without saying that following the 6-pillar model requires immense dedication from mentors,  a dedication that might not be commensurate with any amount of pay. This is why I firmly believe that mentorship should not be lightly entered into, or with the expectation of monetary compensation. It might sound cliche to say that the true payment of any mentorship is the value that one adds to the mentees. It lies in the new connections that a mentee establishes. It lies in the new opportunities that a mentee is presented with. It lies in the light that a mentor keeps aflame in the mind and heart of a mentee by being present as an example. It lies in a contribution that the society might not compensate or appreciate, but one whose value only a dedicated mentee can understand. Through these examples and more, a mentor can positively contribute to the thinking or the life of a student, staff, friend, or colleague. And that is priceless.

An all-gender mentorship program for Computer Science students

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.

Participants’ prior experience with mentorship
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.

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!







Research and Tech in Kenya – Are we doing enough of both?

There is a lot of talk about innovation in tech.  Indeed, Kenya is fondly named the ‘Silicon Savannah’ because of its vibrant tech scene. If the number of tech competitions and tech startups is to go by then we are quite literally throwing all our eggs in the tech basket. In fact, most of us who are in the tech scene have attended at least one pitch competition that seeks to showcase tech innovations. Each of our 60 plus universities offers one IT degree or the other. Even the Kenyan government has not been left behind, what with the distribution of laptops to schools and launching of digital programs, but those are stories for another day.  Similarly, there has been a lot of talk about coding and programming in most countries in the world. There is almost a worldwide push towards getting people to write code, examples being Hour of Code, Africa Code Week, and President Obama’s own Computer Science For All .

Yet, it seems to me that we are holding tech on our right hand and research on our left; then we do not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. About a week ago I gave a talk on research and tech at the ‘African Women in Tech’ conference by AkiraChix. We played a simple game where participants go around the room to find a person who can tick any of the statements on a sheet of paper. One of the statements was ‘I am interested in research but I do not know where to start’. Almost all the sheets came back with that statement ticked. While this is a trivial example and this simple experiment was not controlled, it indicates that while we have done a whole heck of a lot to make coding and tech look ‘cool’, we have done very little, if at all, to make research look equally as cool. And if that is the case, what then is the basis and motivation for all the tech innovations that we seem to be producing?

There is an apparent disconnect between Kenyan academic institutions, which should ideally be the sources and inspiration of research, and the tech ecosystem. Eleanor Marchant wrote a brilliant article that asked the question: University-based research inspired Google – is research needed to inspire Kenyan innovators too? But it would be difficult for universities to inspire any innovation while our students are seeking ‘research services’ from publicly-advertised vendors. Worse that most of our universities do not have measures to curb or detect plagiarism and unoriginal work. If they did, then these ‘research services’ would have run out of business a long time ago. Instead, they are thriving, complete with business cards openly distributed to students and faculty. As Dr. Franceschi asked in his article, Kenyan universities do hardly any research – who has the time? It is a small wonder that the World Bank raised concern on the quality of Kenyan graduates.

Advertisement for ‘Research Services’ at a street in Nairobi

In my first article on this blog, I wrote about the need for additional practical tests in programming courses at Kenyan institutions. I was happy to see that Sidney Ochieng’ had expressed similar sentiments in an open letter  to Kenyan Universities teaching Computer Science. While it is just as well to teach programming languages, we have not done very well in teaching our students how to combine their programming skills with good problem identification, proper background motivation, correct design, and finally, implementation. So we end up with a generation of students with the ‘hackathon’ mentality, where they take a question and run to the keyboard. Indeed, no matter how many people gather at a hackathon, unless there is an existing pre-and-post plan for the project, nine women cannot make a baby in one month.

One of the ways that we can get people thinking about research and tech as one package, and not two separate and unrelated things, is by asking the hard questions at tech hubs, schools, and competitions. Sure, it is great to know the cost projections and user uptake of an application, but I think we have forgotten the basics of what makes any innovation great and impactful in the long-term: the why, the how, and the so what. This is such a problem! So much so that most IT faculty would tell you that supervision of final-year projects is a long, boring and laborious task of listening to yet another recycled idea that was thought of the night before. Sadly, we see very few, if at all, final-year projects that see the light of day beyond the need to tick a box of completion towards graduation. In fact, it is not strange to listen to tech presentation and hear that the  motivation behind the application is that the developer thought it was “cool” or “a nice thing to do”. It is also not strange that, when asked if they have tested the application, the presenter would say, “yes the app is running properly”. Meaning that their idea of testing is testing by themselves in their room and over their laptop, not testing with real users, and certainly not designing with potential users.

So then, the combination of research and tech needs to be repackaged. We have long sold the tech idea and it has sold in trucks and barrels. Unfortunately, the tech idea is still very much the “overnight solution” and the “quick money product”. Unfortunately, also, after the excitement of the pitch is gone, we are left with innovators who struggle to keep a product useful and that really resonates with users. To this, I ask several questions:

  • What if we teach our apprentices, students, and innovators the fundamental skill of identifying good problems that they care about and that potential users would care about?
  • What if we teach them how to work with users as the originators of the problem and not developers as the originators of a (sometimes imaginary) problem?
  • What if we teach them how to work with users right from a throw-away prototype to the final product, as opposed to testing only an end product?
  • What if we teach them design strategies that are not based on ‘nice to have’ but based on user feedback and evaluation results?
  • What if we teach them that the justification of using a mobile phone as a platform should not be “everyone has it” but because they can justify it as a better tool for the innovation than say, a website?
  • What if we teach them that transferring an application from a website to a mobile phone is not innovation, it is actually just migration?
  • What if we create tech-hubs that are not merely spaces for developers to hurdle over their laptops, but ones that are spaces for team collaborations and spaces for potential users to come in and work with innovators on product inception and design?
  • What if, as researchers and innovators, we combine our own tech innovations with sound research as an example to upcoming students and innovators?

Indeed, research should not be this gigantic monster that is the preserve of academia and industry researchers. Research in tech should ideally be a combination of passion for a problem, active involvement of users throughout the process, application of sound principles of inception and design, and only as the very last thing, implementation. Yes, there is a lot of talk about innovation in tech. Perhaps it is the time that we enrich the talk on what innovation actually means so that it does not just mean ‘a new app’.

The GHC Experience

Two weeks ago I attended the Grace Hopper Conference (GHC) in Houston, Texas. I was among the 15,000 attendees who attended this year’s conference. I call GHC the ‘Bucket List’ conference  because it surely is one that every woman in tech (student or industry) should strive to attend at least once. As it is a celebration of women in computing, GHC is the only conference that I know of that has a live DJ and an official after-party. This year’s DJ was Roonie G (@DJRoonieG), who is one heck of a Disc Jockey!

Besides that I was giving a presentation on research in Kenyan academic institutions, I attended GHC for the incredible inspiration that it offers. Not only is the energy during the conference electric, GHC offers an array of amazing speakers, sessions, and people.  At GHC you get wowed by speakers like Astro Teller, who spoke of a culture of innovation that allows freedom and mistakes. Before GHC I had watched Astro Teller’s TED talk on the unexpected benefit of celebrating failure. Listening to him in person from a front row seat was incredibly inspiring. At GHC you get inspired by Computer Scientists like Dr. Latanya Sweeney, who was the first African-American woman to graduate with a Ph.D. from MIT. Dr. Sweeney gave a brilliant talk on the impact of technology on humans and aspects of data protection. At GHC you get touched by amazing stories of triumph, strength, and resilience as shared by Telle Whitney during her keynote on why it takes courage to succeed. At GHC you get an opportunity to listen to exclusive talks and on-stage appearances, such as listening to Mimi Valdes, who is one of the executive producers of the upcoming must-see  film, ‘Hidden Figures’. At GHC you also have access to the many workshops that give hands-on learning on various topics, special sessions on career and professional development, and opportunities to take an on-site interview. In addition, it is one of the few conferences where  you have access to about 300 global tech companies, from Accenture to Twitter, and various top-notch schools, from Georgia Tech to Stanford, pitching their tents in one place for three days!

Dr. Astro Teller at GHC 2016
Dr. Latanya Sweeney at GHC 2016
Telle Whitney at GHC 2016
Mimi Valdes at GHC 2016

Because GHC is always hosted in the US, it is not surprising that the number of African women researchers, students, and academics attending the conference is limited. In addition, there is the issue of lack of funding that bars a great number of African students and professionals from attending conferences abroad. Be that as it may, there is no better place than at GHC to share our contextualized stories and experiences and to have our voices heard.  I emphasize this because we have had discussions that the real on-the-ground picture in Africa is not shared with the world by Africans themselves. GHC offers an opportunity to change this.

One way that we can do this is to encourage more of our students to apply for various full scholarships that support travel to GHC. For example, one of my mentees, Ms. Nyariak Deng’,  was awarded a full scholarship by the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) to attend the conference. She is the first student from Kenya Methodist University to attend GHC. Facebook also offers full GHC travel scholarships that students can apply to. The benefit of having our students attend such a conference is that students not only get a world view on the current trends in technology, they also get challenged by understanding the current tools and technologies that they need to learn in order to get a competitive edge. In any case, the idea is that we prepare our students for the world stage and not just for the local stage. Faculty members also have the opportunity of applying for partial funding from ABI. Women who are doing amazing work in the African community have the opportunity to get nominated for the change agent award. This year, our very own Kenyan, Amanda Gicharu, was the winner of this prestigious recognition.

My contributions towards sharing African stories at this world stage were in the form of a poster presentation of my Ph.D. work at GHC 2014, and talking about the state of research in academic institutions in Kenya at this year’s GHC. See my full presentation here. Indeed, the trend should be that we not only share our stories but we share the techniques, tools, and methods that we have used to contribute towards solutions. Back home in Kenya, AkiraChix organizes the African Women in Technology (AWTC) conference, with this year’s conference happening on November 12th. I encourage that we continually expose our students and researchers to local opportunities such as this so that they can contribute and learn from fellow students and practitioners. I will speak at AWTC 2016 on the involvement of women in tech research.

I thank Google for the support to attend and present at GHC 2016. GHC 2017 will be held in Orlando, Florida, Oct 4-6 2017. I hope to be there. Perhaps this time, I will get the opportunity to participate in a panel of African women researchers talking about the experience of doing research in low-resource settings and the importance of an African-grown researcher in development work that is conducted in Africa.

Please plan to attend GHC 2017 and start preparing to submit session proposals and to apply for the funding opportunities for the same, at your institutions or through the various scholarship opportunities!


Tips on writing award-winning scholarship essays

A good education can be expensive. As a result, a good number of students apply for full or partial scholarships to pursue their studies at reputable institutions of their choice. Indeed, it is that time of the year when most scholarship bodies place a call to potential applicants for 2017 academic fellowships. For example, the Women Techmakers Scholars Programme, formerly Google Anita Borg, is now accepting applications until December 1st, 2016. There are also opportunities for faculty and students to apply for travel grants to a conference.  Examples include, ACM-W that supports undergraduate and graduate women in Computer Science and Kenya Education Network travel grant that supports Kenyan faculty and students to attend conferences.  In addition to awards that aim to support one’s studies and travel, there are several opportunities that provide networking, exposure, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For example, the prestigious Heidelberg Laureate Forum that is open to 200 male and female Mathematics and Computer Science young researchers worldwide, and Queen’s Young Leaders award that recognizes exceptional young people from all backgrounds who are making an impact in their communities.  What is common to many, if not all, of the award and scholarship applications is that they require at least one thorough and well-written essay. In this post, I share some tips that could act as pointers to writing good award/scholarship essays and applications. These tips have been drawn from my own experiences as a recipient of awards/scholarships such as Google Anita Borg (EMEA) (2014), Schlumberger’s Faculty for the Future (2015), and Heidelberg Laureate Forum Young Researcher(2015).

  1. A good scholarship/award application starts long before one starts writing the application. It goes without saying that it would be impossible (and dishonest) to write about what you are not. Given that most scholarship and award applications require a real example from one’s experiences on leadership, community involvement, and overall track record, one then has to have the said track record. Granted, one should not get involved in initiatives or accept leadership positions with the aim of applying for grants or scholarships, but these experiences go a long way in setting you apart. Therefore, in addition to the advantage of growing as an all-rounded individual, I encourage aspiring applicants to go beyond the classroom/workplace and get involved in useful initiatives and leadership positions that are within their skills.
  2. What else do you have to offer? While it is brilliant to have a G.P.A of 4.0 or to rake in A’s and B+’s, it might not be enough. More and more, scholarship bodies prefer applicants who are more than just good students. I read somewhere that interviewers and application reviewers would like an applicant with whom they could be friends or cordial colleagues outside the selection process. Hence, having a life outside the classroom that one is actively contributing to, is the extra ‘x factor’ that reviewers are looking for. It is even more rewarding if that contribution is about other people in the form of mentorship, innovation towards a good cause or development, and community service. This shows that you are not just about yourself.
  3. Lying is not the quality of a winner. Unfortunately, it is true that some people claim to have qualifications and experiences that they have never received. I believe that a scholarship panel worth its salt would be able to pick out an untrue claim. This goes for both academic and social entries on one’s CV or application. For instance,  I was asked to recite a poem during one scholarship interview. It turns out that I had written that I love to read and write poems. Fortunately, this was a true claim and I knew one of my poems off-head. While this might be a trivial example, it goes to show that lying on scholarship applications is a risky undertaking. I will not belabor the unethical, even illegal, consequences of doing this.
  4. Do your homework. Now that you have established that you fulfil point 1 to 3 and have started writing the application, how much do you know about the award/scholarship that you are applying to? Why do they offer this scholarship? Which personalities are associated with the award? What kind of work are they involved in or were they involved in? Who are the past winners of this award/scholarship? Apart from having a general overview of the purpose of the scholarship/award, I suggest four exercises that applicants can undertake in order to demonstrate this:
    • How do you fit in the purpose of the scholarship? What part of your current or past work demonstrates this?
    • Cite personalities or people associated with the award. Having done your homework on who else is associated with the award, do not be afraid to use these examples to show that you understand their principle. Further, it makes for an even better essay if you can juxtapose examples from a session or conference you have attended where you met or listened to the people who you mention. For example, the following  are extracts that I used in one of my applications:
    • In October 2014 I had the privilege of being one of the eight thousand women in computing who attended the Grace Hopper Convention, where Professor Shafi Goldwasser gave the keynote address. As one of the few women who have received the ACM Turing award, I was excited and keen to listen to her. She talked about the cryptographic lens through which theoretical computer science can be viewed. Further, she talked about how

    • I knew of Ronald Rivest, Leonard Adleman, Adi Shamir in my RSA cryptography class at undergraduate computer science. I read about Leslie Lamport when I was learning how to use LaTex. I was lectured on Niklaus Wirth when I took my first introduction to computer systems class in first year. Therefore, I hope that I will be accorded the opportunity to meet these and other computer scientists who pioneered what I have learnt so far. I believe that I am at the right

  5. Do not be afraid to use good reviews or feedback on your work. While we have been conditioned not to talk about ourselves, modesty might be your undoing when it comes to awards/scholarship applications. Of course, I am not advocating for full blown self-trumpeting, but if a client, an examiner, or a supervisor has taken the trouble (and the pleasure) to write a good review you can surely use it. True, it takes an extra step to learn how to talk about one’s work while also maintaining due humility. However, the ability to show that you have done work that has fulfilled a purpose or satisfied a client (with evidence of this) is a great way to prove that you can be depended upon to keep delivering if granted the award/scholarship.
  6. Use data and statistics from your own situation. While it might be alright to use data and statistics from the Internet and those based on others’ experiences, it is way better to use your own raw data. For example, it is easy to claim that only 30% of students in STEM at institutions of higher learning are girls because a certain site says so. However, what about doing your own count and giving statistics based on your own scenario? You might find that the situation is much worse at your own institution (in which case your motivation is stronger), or you might find that the situation is at ‘80% of students in STEM are girls’ at your institution (in which case you might need to cast your net wider for comparison’s sake).
  7. Do not rely on ‘template’ referees. References can make or break your application. The key advice that I can give here is not to get your references from people who do not know you or your work. Or sadly, from lazy referees. The risk here is that such referees are likely to use a standard template to write your reference, where all the references that they write read ‘Miss X is a very intelligent individual who is exceptional at her work.’ Yet, if asked what Miss X’s work is they would not be able to describe it. Hence, it is crucial that one builds professional relationships with qualified individuals (such as supervisors, advisors, and mentors) well and long enough for them to write unique references that are a true reflection of one’s personality and work.
  8. Have a plan to give back. I call this a golden rule. This is golden because it is very easy that after the jubilation of being selected and the euphoria of winning, we forget to give back to the foundation, society or company of whom we are benefactors. In some cases, like the Google Anita Borg Scholarship, there is often an internal plan on how one can give back in the form of involvement in outreach activities. In other cases, there is no elaborate plan but I strongly advise that one should have it nonetheless. Giving back does not necessarily involve monetary tokens. In fact, it rarely does unless if in future one is willing and able to contribute to a fund. Giving back can involve involvement in outreach activities that promote the fund, mentorship of potential applicants and future scholars of the fund, and participation in initiatives associated with the funding company. My motto for this is that ‘Once an X scholar/fellow, always an X scholar/fellow’, where X is whatever foundation or company that one is a beneficiary of. Lastly, if the space of the application allows, it does not hurt to indicate how you would wish to get involved beyond the award if selected.
  9. Have your essays proof-read by someone else or an editor. It always helps to have a trusted second pair of eyes to read through your essays.

To tie it all together, like a good abstract, your essay should answer the ‘what?’, ‘why?’, ‘how?’, and ‘so what?’ questions.

Good luck in your application should you be considering submitting one!

Quality education and mentorship cannot be separated

When a child is learning how to walk they could be supported by an adult’s hands. When the child gets more stable on their feet the adult’s hands can be withdrawn. But if the child misses a step and starts to stumble, the adult’s hand is usually there to get them back to balance.  Like a child, a learner is learning a new skill. On one hand, most universities offer support in the form of availing teachers and resources to the learner. However, more often than not, the second hand is usually missing; the hand of mentorship. As Professor Wainaina indicated in his blog post, ‘our youth are forced to grow without role models, mentors and benefactors.’

Perhaps it is common knowledge that a good education goes over and above good grades. Indeed, the product of a good education is not a Doctor, but a Doctor who is compassionate to the patient. The product of a good education is not a Poet, but a Poet who feels and believes in the lyrics they write. The product of a good education is not a Teacher, but a Teacher who lives the true calling of teaching. The product of a good education is not a Scientist, but a Scientist who truly understands the problem that needs a new invention. Hence, it is not enough to just graduate students who toss their graduation hats in the air and listen to yet another speech. Once the hats come down and reality sinks in, it is our hope that the students have been molded to all-rounded contributors of the society in whatever their calling might be.

Every year when KCPE and KCSE results are announced we are bombarded with pictures and media interviews of jubilating teachers and students. When the students are asked what they would like to be when they ‘grow up’, we could almost predict the answer with at least 95% certainty. Anyone would be excused to think that the only careers that ‘grown ups’ should pursue are Doctor, Engineer, and Pilot. Be that as it may, it might be excusable for students not to aspire to be teachers, what with the reality of low pay and more strikes a year than a clock strikes midnight in 48 hours. I wonder, have we as a society perhaps contributed to the image that certain careers are not ‘grown up’ enough?

I recently conducted a survey among 30 students to find out if they have been involved in any mentorship program while at university. 85% of the students indicated that they had not been involved in any mentorship program. While this is a small sample and may not be a correct indication of the general student population, it gives an indication that there is a gap that needs to be addressed. Further, I asked the students what they would expect from a University-based mentorship program. The expectations included: to gain exposure outside the classroom; to learn soft skills; to gain information and knowledge about scholarships and grants; and peer-to-peer support. Such reasons motivated the start of a mentorship program that I run.

Learners are extremely self-aware and observant that they would know when a teacher does not care beyond the classroom door. Learners can tell the difference between a teacher who is there to pass the time and one who is there to give them his or her time. Learners can tell the difference between a teacher who does not know the content of the course and one who took the time to prepare and master the course. Importantly, learners crave for a nudge and that extra push towards the right direction. If experience has taught me anything, it is that most learners respond to teachers who care. And once learners care, it becomes the golden opportunity to nudge them towards the right direction.

Having said these, it is difficult for institutions to provide mentors to their learners if the people they hire do not really want to be there in the first place. Indeed, there are many things that one can fake till they make it, but genuine mentorship is not one of those things. This is because a mentor is not only someone who cares enough to spend time listening to a learner beyond the classroom, but also one who exemplifies the gospel that they preach. A mentor is not just yet another teacher with an advanced degree, but one who is able to challenge a learner to pursue and reach their potential. A mentor is one who can and has gone out of their way to look for opportunities and to guide the learner to pursue opportunities of their interest. A mentor is one who can correct a learner with as much firmness as with care. A mentor is one whose path a learner can aspire to follow because the mentor spends the time to continually learn, gain and improve themselves. It is difficult for a child to learn how to walk if the adult holding their hand is also not walking.

While it might be noble and opportunity-driven to build and start institutions, mentorship is always an after-thought. While it is correct for Universities to hire only those with postgraduate degrees, the ability and experience to mentor is never a requirement. While it is expense-driven to expect monetary compensation for the extra hours spent on a learner or two, you cannot put a price on the life-long impact one can have on a learner who was shown and embraced the right path. While it meets a business model to graduate learners after every four years , the graduate will be more indispensable if they bring more than an ‘A’ to the table of employment. While it might be enough to produce a graduate who can recite the value of pi to twenty decimal places, it might be better if said graduate has also learned logic and comprehension as life-skills.

Surely, it would be a shame if our children had to learn to walk by only holding onto tables and chairs with no adults around to offer a loving hand. Worse, it is such a shame that an adult who supposedly spent four years at a learning institution ryts emails lyk dis that bgin with ‘hae’.

The need for additional practical tests in programming courses at Kenyan institutions

I teach Object Oriented Programming (OOP) and Graphical User Interface (GUI) programming using Java. At the end of a term during which I taught OOP I conducted an evaluation of the course. One of the common sentiments from students was that they needed more lab hours and practical sessions in order to practice programming. While this might sound like an obvious sentiment to most people who teach programming or to those who work as programmers, it might not be an obvious choice for students who study part-time and have only 3 hours a day to attend classes after a full day at work. Most of my students are part-time students. It might also not be an obvious choice for institutions that have to share limited resources (computer laboratories) among the many courses that they offer, leaving occupancy of labs to at least 70% lecture time and very little time to students’ personal learning and to dedicated practical sessions.

The combination of limited resources, limited time for students to attend classes, the need to complete the syllabus within a strict amount of time, and sometimes the lack of availability of lecturers during extra hours, produces students who complete programming classes and somehow manage to pass exams, but who cannot write a ‘Hello World’ program without conducting a quick Google Search. The fact that students manage to pass theory exams is not a good indication of their abilities in programming for two reasons: (i) considering the aforementioned factors, the students are likely not to have gone through enough (if at all) practical sessions to hone their programming skills; and (ii) in most Kenyan institutions a theoretical end-of-semester exam takes a bigger percentage of the overall assessment marks (60% or 70% in most places), which in my opinion is too much a portion to assign to a practical course such as programming. Further, it is no secret that a good number of Kenyan students cram their way through university. Indeed, the quality of Kenyan education has been decried by many. This is a constant conversation that I have been part of on Twitter (@evangelinechao), and it is one that has been written about by others in local newspapers and blogs [1,2].

While it might seem that it is difficult to increase the practical sessions for students and possibly introduce more practical tests and exams for subjects like programming, there are some potential opportunities to contribute to a solution. My suggestions are:

  1. For researchers in educational technology to design and experiment with technologies that could potentially support students to learn programming or other practical subjects through learning-by-doing and not by merely reading text. It is this motivation that led to my PhD research, which focused on enabling students to construct Java programs on their mobile phones [3,4]. This is still my current research interest and I am working on additional experiments in this area.
  2. To experiment with flexible models that work around limited resources and students’ availability. I am currently teaching GUI programming. In order to plan around the available limited resources, I made arrangements to secure extra lab hours (in addition to the 3 hours set for the class) a month in advance. In order to ensure that students would be available during the extra hours I spoke to students who would potentially take GUI programming, before they registered for the course, to find out the hours they might be available outside the lecture time. With this, I was able to come up with a course schedule that included the lecture material during the set class hours and the practical material that we shall cover during the extra lab hours. During our first lesson 100% of the full time students and 95% of part time students confirmed that they will be able to attend the extra lab hours. Further, this model allows me the time to conduct practical continuous assessment tests. While this model will require me to work overtime it is one that I am willing to follow through in order to measure students’ programming skills, their ability to work on practical tests and ultimately their general performance in the subject.
  3. Institutions can either reduce the percentage of marks that are allocated to theoretical examinations in practical subjects or they can introduce practical examinations for practical courses. With such adjustments institutions might be forced to allocate additional resources, time, instructors and teaching assistants to the practical aspects of courses such as programming.

Institutions might not be able to change their working models overnight nor can they instantaneously provide additional resources, but teachers and researchers have the responsibility and ability to experiment with models that might work for them and their students. Further, documenting and sharing various experiences and models by academics would be a good source for best practices. Additionally, researchers have the opportunity to use the resources that their students have (such as mobile phones and tablets) to provide the much-needed practical solutions that will enable our students to graduate with practical skills. Needless to say, we should not resign to producing students who have not acquired adequate skills while riding on the excuse of limited resources, among other factors. Limited resources and limited time for students might be our current reality but such factors are certainly a great source of ideas for experiments and invention, or just that they provide big rooms for improvement.



[2] Munene, I. (2016). Kenya’s universities are in the grip of a quality crisis. The Conversation. Retrieved from

[3] Mbogo, Chao, Edwin Blake, and Hussein Suleman. “Initial Evaluation of a Mobile Scaffolding Application That Seeks to Support Novice Learners of Programming.” International Association for Development of the Information Society (2014).

[4] Mbogo, Chao, Edwin Blake, and Hussein Suleman. “Design and Use of Static Scaffolding Techniques to Support Java Programming on a Mobile Phone.” Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education. ACM, 2016.