Leveling the Playing Field

Leveling the Playing Field

“I wish we had something like this back home.”

We’re having coffee with Roula Sharqawe, one of TUMO’s Winter of Code lab leaders who’s teaching a course on cybersecurity. Born in Palestine, Roula moved to the United States four years ago to attend Yale, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, to study computer science and, specifically, cybersecurity. When asked why she opted to spend her holiday vacation teaching in a country she’d never been to before rather than take a much needed break from a grueling academic schedule, Roula replies that it was an opportunity she simply couldn’t pass up. Citing the beauty of the country and Yerevan’s holiday festive atmosphere, she stresses the importance of her course’s subject matter. “Everyone uses the Internet all the time now…we’re practically living online. This younger generation is so familiar with the Internet, but they need to be cautious of the risks and threats that are out there.”

One thing that immediately jumps out when visiting Roula’s cybersecurity lab is the demographics; the class is made up entirely of teenage girls. This was no accident; Roula specifically requested an all-girls group after agreeing to lead one of Winter of Code’s two-week long labs “The computer science industry and, especially, cybersecurity are extremely male-centric. I wanted to empower and inspire these girls…and create a positive environment where they can create solutions to all of these complex problems out there. It’s something I really would’ve appreciated and benefited from when I was their age.”

Classes usually begin with a role call, with Roula careful to ensure that she pronounces each student’s name correctly. Before diving into the subject at hand, Roula kicks off the afternoon with a bit of light-hearted banter to ease students into the lesson, with questions about each girl’s day and small-talk about movies and food peppering the room. Soft jazz music hums lightly in the background which, combined with the warmth Roula radiates in front of her students, creates a relaxed sort of ambience, the perfect environment to dive in and tackle issues like data theft and malware infections.

The two week workshop gave the girls in class the opportunity to research and develop rudimentary programs in a cybersecurity field of their choosing: cyberattacks, cryptography, data privacy, or cyberbullying. Most of the girls elected to focus on creating new encryption models to strengthen password security, with Liana Avagyan,18, quick to point out that Roula “really helped us understand all of the risks we face when we’re online and how we can best protect ourselves.” On a similar note, Maria Movsisyan, 15, mentioned some of Roula’s personal characteristics that allowed the students to pick up on these topics so quickly. “She’s just very patient…she’ll spend so much time with each student and help us figure out any problems we might have.”

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Ultimately, Roula hopes that her brief time at TUMO serves as a stepping stone for her young students on a trajectory towards fruitful careers in the computer science industry. Yet while Roula undoubtedly made a lasting impression on her students with her focus on technology’s gender disparity and the need to level the playing field in STEM-oriented careers, both the students and TUMO itself left a notable mark on her as well. “The last two weeks have totally opened my eyes in terms of how much these students can grasp and take in…how quickly they understand what I’m teaching them. The world could definitely use more places like this. So I guess you could say that this experience has inspired me to think about the need for programs like TUMO.”