Cracking the Code

For this Afghan girl, empowerment through education now goes two ways.
"Whatever your love and passion is, you can pass it on to others."

Bahara Mohammadi C’20 spent most of her childhood in Iran after she and her family were displaced by the war in Afghanistan, and attended high school in western Pennsylvania before arriving at Drew to study neuroscience. Time and distance only deepened her desire to share with other Afghan girls the gift that had changed her life: an education. This past summer, Mohammadi returned to her homeland to teach computer coding to 20 Afghan girls in grades four to 12, through a program she designed herself: Afghan Girls Code.

Her goal is to expand the number of Afghan women with skills in computer science, a passion she first discovered at Drew. “It was something very new for myself and I really wanted to pass it on to others who don’t have the opportunity, like me, to be at Drew,” she says. Women in Afghanistan, she continues, “are always suppressed and don’t have basic rights. It was important for me to empower them through computer science.”

She took her idea to two longtime supporters: the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund, a Madison-based nonprofit that has financed the U.S. educations of more than 30 Afghan girls, including Mohammadi; and Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict, a partner of the fund since 2010. “Both helped me financially and through mentorship,” she says, reserving special gratitude for CRCC Director Jonathan Golden, who “encouraged me with the project. He always supports me, no matter what.”

She spent a solid two and a half months on the project, soliciting donations, developing coursework, sending out applications and interviewing potential students.

The hardest part was building a curriculum based on video games and animation, an area where the interests of her students and the availability of donated software intersected— but in which she herself had no expertise. “I had to teach myself and then teach my students.”

Each day for 10 straight days, classes met in a computer lab in Kabul, where the girls learned coding and created mazes, 2-D games and animated stories. “I was very impressed by the students,” says their teacher, pointing out that few Afghans have coding skills. “They are so smart, and they all want to study at the top universities in the world. They don’t just say it—they are working hard to achieve these goals. If they continue on this path, I think they can do it.”

Bahara Mohammadi on the challenges of teaching computer science in Afghanistan:
"They have really, really limited resources. The internet is so bad that it took me an entire week just to download the software onto 10 computers. One day the class had to go home early after we heard four explosions nearby. We learned later they were only 20 minutes away. People had died. Through it all, at the same time, the students were so positive."

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