Lillian Achom had already been accepted at a university in Uganda when her search for organizations to sponsor her studies led her to Nodumo Dhlamini, who urged her to apply to Africa University.
Dhlamini not only helped Achom apply to the United Methodist university in Mutare, Zimbabwe; she also paid her application fee.
"Little did I know that she was a staff member at AU," Achom said. Dhlamini was then director of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) department at the school.
After being mentored herself at Africa University, it is no surprise that Achom, a Ugandan who earned a bachelor's degree in computer information systems in 2012, is passionate about encouraging girls who pursue science, technology, engineering and math degrees.
A self-employed IT contractor, the Kampala, Uganda, resident is team leader of Afchix Uganda, the country's chapter of Africa Women in Technology, and founder of eHub Uganda, an online portal for career guidance for high school students. She is a mentor for Uganda Technovation Challenge, a technology program and competition that teaches young women how to build mobile applications to solve community challenges where they live.
Achom was the project manager for Computers for Schools Kenya in Nairobi, which also ran TechSoup, a program by Microsoft and other partners aimed at donating software and other technology resources to church-based initiatives, non-governmental organizations and hospitals.
Because of her work, a number of schools in rural Kenya have access to computers and the Internet and some educators from the 47 counties in Kenya have benefited from the basic computer literacy and advanced trainings she proposed and coordinated.
When Achom was in Kenya, she recognized one priceless gift she had received from Africa University.
"The reality of it was when I traveled to work in Kenya, and I felt at home with colleagues all around me," she said.
Encouraging girls and women
Achom said more must be done to increase the number of girls and women going into and staying in science, technology, engineering and math professions.
"Teenage girls now use computers and the Internet at rates similar to boys, but they are five times less likely to consider a technology-related career," Achom said. "Therefore, there is a need to address the talent pool by focusing on mentoring, up-skilling, designing and implementing well-thought-out sponsorship programs for young girls if we are to address the problems in the talent pipeline of future ICT professionals."
That's why she works with Afchix Uganda, a community of women in technology who consider gender diversity in the computer science and technology fields critical for increased creativity and innovative performance.
The vision of Afchix Uganda is to create a vibrant network of African women in computer science/ICT and related areas by encouraging girls to consider taking science and technology classes in college and by networking with those already in the field to support young women in their careers, Achom said.
"We use our own team members to inspire the girls through talks and demonstrating solutions to community problems some team members have done. ... Using the principle 'Each one reaching one,' we each identify an upcoming woman in technology from different universities and institutions and mentor her through her studies, and the chain continues," Achom said.
Afchix supports the efforts of young women in technology to present papers and participate in regional and global computer science and technology conferences. "We have been able to expose our girls to more powerful women in the industry, most of whom get inspired," Achom said.
The group also supports women already working in science and technology. "We identify opportunities and create partnerships with key organizations for further technical trainings to refresh their skills in their respective fields," Achom said.
Lack of information
Afchix has found secondary school girls don't have sufficient information on careers in information and communication technology.
"During a recent Girls in ICT event that Afchix Uganda hosted, it emerged that over 80 percent of the girls had heard of the various careers in computing for the first time. During the same event in 2013, it emerged that out of 50 girls, only seven had thought about taking up a career in ICT," she said.
After attending one seminar providing information about careers, Achom was contacted by a young woman who had attended.
"She had given the contacts of both her parents and asked us to call them and convince them on her behalf, so that she is allowed to do telecom engineering instead of law as the parents desired. This only confirms to us how much career guidance is important," she said.
Achom said that women working in technology must overcome the belief of many that women cannot do that kind of work.
She recalled the reaction of a man who was having problems with a computer at the company where she worked as a technician.
"When he was directed to me, he was hesitant for a minute. ... He did not trust the person he was told would touch his machine," she said.
"Later, he paid me extra cash for getting his machine back to work in the shortest time possible. This was evidence that he was in disbelief."
Vicki Brown is news editor for United Methodist News Service at United Methodist Communications.
Read more about Lillian Achom's work on her blog, lillianachom.blogspot.com.
Learn more about Afchix at afchix.blogspot.com..