Tahmina S. was a junior studying computer engineering at a top university in Afghanistan when a new government policy banned women from pursuing education. In August 2021, the Taliban prohibited girls from attending school beyond the sixth grade. While women were initially allowed to continue to attend universities, by October 2021, an order from the Ministry of Higher Education declared that all women in Afghanistan were suspended from attending public and private centers of higher education.
Determined to continue her studies and pursue her ambitions, Tahmina found the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) and was accepted to its Certificate in Computer Science and Data Science program in 2022.
“ReACT helped me realize that I can do big things and be a part of big things,” she says.
MIT ReACT provides education and professional opportunities to learners from refugee and forcibly displaced communities worldwide. ReACT’s core pillars include academic development, human skills development, employment pathways, and network building. Since 2017, ReACT has offered its Certificate in Computer and Data Science (CDS) program free-of-cost to learners wherever they live. In 2022, ReACT welcomed its largest and most diverse cohort to date — 136 learners from 29 countries — including 25 learners from Afghanistan, more than half of whom are women.
Tahmina was able to select her classes in the program, and especially valued learning Python — which has led to her studying other programming languages and gaining more skills in data science. She’s continuing to take online courses in hopes of completing her undergraduate degree, and someday pursuing a masters degree in computer science and becoming a data scientist.
“It’s an important and fun career. I really love data,” she says. “If this is my only time for this experience, I will bring to the table what I have, and do my best.”
In addition to the education ban, Tahmina also faced the challenge of accessing an internet connection, which is expensive where she lives. But she regularly studies between 12 and 14 hours a day to achieve her dreams.
The ReACT program offers a blend of asynchronous and synchronous learning. Learners complete a curated series of online, rigorous MIT coursework through MITx with the support of teaching assistants and collaborators, and also participate in a series of interactive online workshops in interpersonal skills that are critical to success in education and careers.
ReACT learners engage with MIT’s global network of experts including MIT staff, faculty, and alumni — as well as collaborators across technology, humanitarian, and government sectors.
“I loved that experience a lot, it was a huge achievement. I’m grateful ReACT gave me a chance to be a part of that team of amazing people. I’m amazed I completed that program, because it was really challenging.”
Theory into practice
Tahmina was one of 10 students from the ReACT cohort accepted to the highly competitive MIT Innovation Leadership Bootcamp program. She worked on a team of five people who initiated a business proposal and took the project through each phase of the development process. Her team’s project was creating an app for finance management for users aged 23-51 — including all the graphic elements and a final presentation. One valuable aspect of the boot camp, Tahmina says, was presenting their project to real investors who then provided business insights and actionable feedback.
As part of this ReACT cohort, Tahmina also participated in the Global Apprenticeship Program (GAP) pilot, an initiative led by Talanta and with the participation of MIT Open Learning as curriculum provider. The GAP initiative focuses on improving diverse emerging talent job preparedness and exploring how companies can successfully recruit, onboard, and retain this talent through remote, paid internships. Through the GAP pilot, Tahmina received training in professional skills, resume and interview preparation, and was matched with a financial sector firm for a four-month remote internship in data science.
To prepare Tahmina and other learners for these professional experiences, ReACT trains its cohorts to work with people who have diverse backgrounds, experiences, and challenges. The nonprofit Na’amal offered workshops covering areas such as problem-solving, innovation and ideation, goal-setting, communication, teamwork, and infrastructure and info security. Tahmina was able to access English classes and learn valuable career skills, such as writing a resume.
“This was an amazing part for me. There’s a huge difference going from theoretical to practical,” she says. “Not only do you have to have the theoretical experience, you have to have soft skills. You have to communicate everything you learn to other people, because other people in the business might not have that knowledge, so you have to tell the story in a way that they can understand.”
ReACT wanted the women in the program to be mentored by women who were not only leaders in the tech field, but working in the same geographic region as learners. At the start of the internship, Na’amal connected Tahmina with a mentor, Maha Gad, who is head of talent development at Talabat and lives in Dubai. Tahmina met with Gad at the beginning and end of each month, giving her the opportunity to ask expansive questions. Tahmina says Gad encouraged her to research and plan first, and then worked with her to explore new tools, like Trello.
Wanting to put her skills to use locally, Tahmina volunteered at the nonprofit Rumie, a community for Afghan women and girls, working as a learning designer, translator, team leader, and social media manager. She currently volunteers at Correspondents of the World as a story ambassador, helping Afghan people share stories, community, and culture — especially telling the stories of Afghan women and the changes they’ve made in the world.
“It’s been the most beautiful journey of my life that I will never forget,” says Tahmina. “I found ReACT at a time when I had nothing, and I found the most valuable thing.”