Thursday, July 21, 2011

Saudi Arabian High school program

My university has a brand-new partnership with a university in Saudi Arabia, and part of the agreement is that there will be outreach to girls and women in Saudi Arabia (including specifying a certain amount of women be enrolled in the joint exchange student program). As another outreach effort, a two week summer camp was designed for high school girls. So ten Saudi high schoolers interested in math and science are currently here in Boston, learning about engineering.

World's Best School already hosts a LOT of summer camps. (See: hordes of small bodies clogging up the student center at lunch these days...). And in particular, it hosts a well-established high school girl's summer technology program, which runs for four weeks. I was involved in helping plan the two week program for the Saudi girls, and we collaborated with the existing four week program managers to draw from their experience (and class materials!). As additional collaboration, the Saudi girls will join the existing program for the final capstone project. The final capstone project requires materials and lab space for building things, and it's easier logistically to just add ten girls and supplies to an established program with sixty girls, then to come up with something from scratch. Especially since the timing overlaps so well, and this is the first year we've tried this program for the Saudi girls.

We also tried to include some extra-curricular items for the girls. There are a couple field trips to local engineering and technology companies. There's a trip to the beach for the annual national sand-castle building competition (we checked to make sure the beach was appropriate, and it was - although obviously they will not be wearing bikinis..), and a shopping trip.

And last night, there was a social event that I was in charge of. For all of these girls, this is the first time they have been in America, and for some of them, the first time being exposed to Western culture in general. Their high school teachers are women (as are all the teachers in this two-week program, by the way), but they may never have had a chance to meet female role models in the engineering/science fields.

So I invited four other women grad students that I know (all from varying majors), and we had dinner and dessert with the high school girls. It was just an informal thing (I had some puzzles/games to break the ice if necessary), and the purpose was basically to prove that people like me and my friends exist. There are, indeed, women who make a career out of math and science. I thought about inviting undergrad women, but they are mostly gone for the summer, and I thought about inviting a couple of the female faculty, but their schedules are more difficult, and I thought grad students were a little younger and more relatable anyway.

So last evening, I got to be privy to a pretty amazing thing. I have always felt that World's Best School is an incredibly humbling place - no matter how smart I think I am, there is always somebody smarter. No matter how organized, how creative, how disciplined I am - always, there is someone further than I on the spectrum. For a lot of incoming students here, knowing you aren't the best is a jarring realization that can completely kneecap their personal identity. I've tried to look at it as inspiring, but mostly it's just humbling.

But humble comes in many forms. As well as academic and intellectual humility, it is also humbling to meet people like these girls - people who have come from families, circumstances, even entire cultures that set up roadblocks in their way. I've always had support and encouragement, mentors and role models along the way, and I am very blessed to be where I am today. To witness girls who have not had the chances and opportunities I have, and yet have the determined spirit to overcome obstacles and succeed in following their passions - that, dear readers, is humbling.

I was instructed to set up that event for the purpose of inspiring these high school girls and showing them what's possible - but in the end, it had the result of inspiring ME. If these girls are here, possibilities are endless.

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