Tech Sisters Interviews is a series that profiles Muslim women in tech and brings attention to the incredible personalities and work we have in our community. We’re so excited to welcome Doonyah as our latest Tech Sister! She’s a senior in High School who is passionate about female empowerment and representation in STEM. She’s deeply involved in computer science outreach, ranging from organizing hackathons all over Indiana to co-founding a non-profit on Purdue University’s campus. Through these roles, she plans to break down barriers, help bridge the gender gap, and make STEM education accessible to all, especially to young girls.
Can you describe how you first got into tech? What first sparked your interest?
I first became interested in tech and computer science when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I enrolled in a week-long Introduction to Programming course at my local university, Purdue. I went in with no expectations and an open mind; I didn’t know much about computing and technology at all. I felt so excited by all the new knowledge I learned in that week. It opened my mind to websites, programming, and the different platforms people use to express their opinions.
You founded CoderDojoAnvil with your sister when you were 12 years old. Can you talk about what inspired you to start that initiative and describe the experience?
After I finished the course at Purdue, I told my parents that I was very interested in programming and wanted to learn more. We looked around, but couldn’t find any STEM programs in our local community. I knew that the other people who took the same course were also looking for more learning opportunities to continue learning; I wasn’t the only one.
I did some googling and found out about CoderDojo. It’s a global network of free, volunteer-led, community-based programming clubs for young people. With my sister’s help, I decided to start a chapter here in West Lafayette. We called it CoderDojoAnvil because of our location’s building name. I was 12, and my sister was a junior at Purdue at the time. Farah had a background in entrepreneurship and managing organizations, so she was a huge help.
Together, we built a team out of a diverse group of volunteers and leveraged students and faculty from Purdue. Our chapter ran for four years, teaching young people how to code for free. We had humble beginnings and simple expectations. I didn’t think we would get a lot of students involved, but we’ve had over 250 families participate in our organization and 60-70 volunteers.
I loved being able to support my community throughout this endeavor and grateful because not every teenager can say they could start something like this. It truly broadened my horizon in the STEM field, and I later decided that I wanted to explore research as another way to get more involved in tech and computing.
This past September, Purdue bought our location, and, as a team, we decided that it was time to close our chapter and rally around other CoderDojos in Indiana that we inspired with our message and mission. Our goal now is to reach underprivileged students in areas with a greater need than West Lafayette and we are planning on using our resources and knowledge gained to help other youth across Indiana.
What was your favorite memory during your time with CoderDojoAnvil?
There are so many good memories and good people, a lot of love in one place. It’s the sort of community I wish I had but didn’t exist until Farah and I gathered a lot of people, threw them in a room and made them start coding.
We had so much fun! We brought in some tech gadgets, like drones, for some of our sessions. We had inspiring guest speakers who were so kind to us and just great people. Even the mayor came in and talked to each of us about what we like about STEM.
For me, my favorite memory was when a parent came up to tell me about his daughter, who recently enrolled in our program. He said that he and his daughter just moved to the area, and it’s been hard getting his daughter, who happens to be autistic, to make friends and fit into the community. He thanked us for having this kind of environment for her because she was able to make a lot of friends through this organization. He felt relieved knowing that his little girl was going to be ok because of our tight-knit group, and that’s something that will always stick with me.He felt relieved knowing that his little girl was going to be ok because of our tight-knit group, and that's something that will always stick with me. Click To Tweet
You’ve done so much STEM outreach to young people. How can we improve our outreach efforts?
From what I’ve noticed, a lot of schools weren’t interested or didn’t know much about STEM before 2016. We saw a greater interest in STEM throughout Indiana after we started CoderDojoAnvil, and through our work with the CoderDojo Indiana Initiative – a fund that buys materials and technology gadgets, like laptops or Sphero robots, for schools teaching and promoting STEM education.
Connecting the outreach activity with students’ daily lives is a great way to get them interested. We noticed that even when students didn’t initially know much about STEM, they became very interested in tech when they could see how it applies to their daily life and wanted to continue their learning beyond the outreach program.
The age of the person doing the outreach has a significant impact on how well the program connects with students. As a 17-year-old girl, I feel like I relate with students much better than someone 20-30 years older. When someone your age talks to you about STEM, it’s easy to form a bond and connection, and you’re more likely to engage with the learning material.When someone your age talks to you about STEM, it's easy to form a bond and connection, and you're more likely to engage with the learning material. Click To Tweet
How has STEM outreach towards young girls changed over the years you’ve been doing it?
Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of initiatives to get girls exposed to STEM and show that anyone can be a part of this world. Personally, one of my main goals for CoderDojoAnvil was to reach out to young girls. I was once in that position where I was interested in STEM, but I didn’t know about any programs and didn’t have the opportunity to continue learning. I wanted to present our organization as the opportunity I wanted to have when I first started my tech journey. We had at least 5-10 girls attending every session. We made sure that they felt welcome, that their opinions were heard and respected, and that they weren’t treated any differently than the boys.
You mentioned earlier that you want to get involved in tech research. Can you tell us more about that?
A few years after starting CoderDojo, I decided to try to pursue a research project. I reached out to professors at Purdue and was fortunate to catch the eye of one of the professors. I’ve been working with him for the last year, and we’ve been researching the effectiveness of standard mobile forensics tools in detecting and recovering deleted iOS notes. We have plans for a potential publication in a journal! I’m very interested in this area and would like to major in Computer Science and minor in Cyber Security or Data Privacy when I start university.
Can you tell us more about why you’re interested in Security and Data Privacy?
I was waiting at a cafe in London with my brother about a year ago and saw a magazine called Computeractive lying on the table. One of the articles that caught my attention was about GDPR and different stakeholder perspectives. I’ve always been interested in government, law, and ethics, so I found this particularly interesting. When I got back to the states, I started reading articles and attending webinars (even sneaking into college lectures!) to learn more.
2018 was the biggest year in data privacy issues. The total number and size of data breaches affected millions of people. For example, Facebook had an attack on its network that exposed the data of 15 million people. I loved reading about every aspect of the scandal and trying to piece together what could have possibly happened. I want to make sure the career I have at the end of the day maximizes security and privacy because it is such an important issue.
Do you have any plans to help the community further once you start university?
I want to work with a startup that focuses on helping women in Afghanistan learn more about STEM. My parents are from Afghanistan, and I know that the education system there is in dire need, and women don’t have as many rights as they should. Investing my time and energy into a startup that creates curriculums and programs that we can use in Afghanistan is something I’m very interested in. I believe I have the resources to do a lot of good. My goal is to help young girls and women reach their potential and do their best in life, even if they weren’t given the best opportunities as a child in a war-torn country. There’s a lot of good work being done by groups like Afghan Girls Code, but I still want to lend a hand and help them be the best they can be.
How do you feel as a Muslim woman in tech?
The only negative is that a lot of people don’t take us seriously. I think improving that public perception of us is one of the most critical things that Muslim women are working on right now. We’re visible in the workforce, and people see us as hardworking women who are talented at so many things – just like everyone else.I think improving that public perception of us is one of the most critical things that Muslim women are working on right now. Click To Tweet
I struggled a little bit with my Muslim identity when I started wearing hijab at age 11. A lot of people around me didn’t understand why I chose to wear it, or even understand Islam. In some ways, it’s become more challenging over the years. But starting CoderDojoAnvil helped me develop my personality and character into something that incorporates my identity as a young Muslim woman but also as a Muslim Afghan American. I feel like I combined my religion, culture, and personality into one.
Anytime I do something STEM-related, I make sure to talk about this. People come from all different backgrounds, but I want to make sure they feel comfortable because I remember being in that position. I feel like I’ve used where I’m from and who I am as an advantage in STEM outreach.
Your family is clearly very supportive mashAllah. How much do you think they’ve impacted where you are now?
So much! There’s a stereotype that Muslim parents will only accept their children becoming doctors or engineers. Even though I have two older siblings who are both in the medical field, my parents never pressured me and supported my interests in computing. They view education as the most important thing someone can have and is what determines how well you do in this dunya (pun intended!). They taught me that if I’m passionate about something, I need to work hard to strive and achieve my goals. I never faced anything without my family behind my back, and I always go to them when I need advice because I know they’ll listen and help me out.
What is something or someone in your tech journey that you’re grateful for?
Obviously, my family has been there for me from day one, and they’ve been very supportive. But I’m also incredibly grateful for my deen, in general. I wouldn’t be as strong as I am today if it wasn’t for the love of Allah SWT and the love of being a Muslim. Islam helps me understand my role in this life and how Allah tests us. Sometimes we’re being tested through our patience and sabr; we need to realize that this is a test that Allah put in our way, and we have to pass it. I owe everything to Allah, and I wouldn’t be here without His plans and everything He destined for me.
Do you have any advice for students?
Don’t let the opinions of others affect you or determine what you do in your life. People who degrade who you are as a person have a lack of self-worth. What people say doesn’t matter. You know what’s right for you.Don't let the opinions of others affect you or determine what you do in your life. People who degrade who you are as a person have a lack of self-worth. What people say doesn't matter. You know what's right for you. Click To Tweet