Starting a concept that later evolved into an immersive, hands-on technology, and mentorship program was an interesting challenge for Aya Mouallem. The 23-year-old computer engineer believed that girls needed a way to learn about coding, what is now a booming industry within itself, to be equally skilled as their male counterparts in engineering. Aya is the co-founder of All Girls Code, a program that empowers young girls at high school and early university levels and teaches them about the foundations and applications of different coding programs that can be used in various types of jobs.
Aya grew up in a supportive family. Her parents always wanted the best for her and encouraged her to go after her dreams. Having this support, Aya felt comfortable sharing with her family any projects that she wanted to pursue because they were appreciative of any initiative that she was about to start. Aya is the only engineer at home and the only member who pursued graduate studies. Because of her family’s faith in her, she felt that she needed to be the role model that they viewed her to be. Aya believes that she has a duty toward younger members of the family, such as her little cousins, who want to become like her when they grow older. Since they look up to Aya, she takes responsibility and positive actions in her studies and work.
Aya was an undergraduate student of Computer and Communications Engineering at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Being a woman in engineering comes with a different set of challenges in Lebanon. During her first year as a sophomore, Aya was enrolled in an engineering lab that had only one other girl besides herself, in a lab full of men. This was somewhat weird for Aya; however, she never received any discriminatory comments during her university years.
She recalls the time when she was in high school and compares it with being at university. Aya mentions how she was one of the very few girls in the General Sciences section in 12th grade who focused on mathematics and physics. She points out that as soon as she left the classroom, one day, her teacher was surprised that she had the highest grades in class, “beating the boys’ averages.” To this day, Aya does not understand the basis of this stereotype or the reason for his confusion and shock but felt that change needs to be done.
Growing up, Aya did not have a role model in engineering to guide her in her choices and decisions. She lacked this type of support at school and university. As a high school student, Aya’s math teacher, Elena Roman Kanso, signed her up for a math competition held at AUB where she joined forces with other classmates to design a project. At the time, her teacher’s contribution was not huge, but Aya appreciated her support and guidance. At university, she did not easily find a role model or mentor. She attended a talk one day by a professor from the Electrical Engineering department. Professor Rowaida Kanj’s achievements attracted Aya and led her to contact the professor to be her mentor as she involves her in her research projects.
As part of her education, Aya felt frustrated that her male counterparts were more knowledgeable in coding than she was. She did not find an available opportunity to learn. So, Aya met with a friend of hers and decided to run an initiative that would offer the space that they never had. All Girls Code stemmed from the idea that all girls should have equal opportunities in learning skills that would allow them to improve in their education and careers. The programs that All Girls Code offers are free of charge so that any girl, regardless of ethnicity or social class, can enroll in and benefit from the program. Still, as a university student, Aya would often bump into some of the girls that she mentored in her program on campus and has candid conversations with them. This reassures Aya that she did the right thing in founding All Girls Code.
Aya has to offer simple advice to school teachers that she feels would create a difference in girls’ self-esteem. Since her focus is on STEM education, she advises math and science teachers to change pronouns in the exercises that they give to students. For instance, when solving a physics problem, Aya finds it essential to sometimes refer to the target person in the exercise as “she” instead of “he” or “the girl” instead of “the boy.” Although some might note that this is not important, Aya feels that it might help girls feel involved. She also reinforces this idea so that girls would better acknowledge that the sciences are not only for boys but also for girls.
Starting at a young age, Aya feels that girls should always be proactive in their lives. Before reaching a stage where serious decisions and life-changing choices are taken, Aya suggests that girls should be able to find a role model at a young age. She was surprised to find out that many women are happy to help when asked and was saddened that she knew that this option was available when she was older. Aya advises girls to ask for help and assistance whenever needed and not keep any questions unanswered because they might come in handy.
Aya acknowledges the great impact that the media has on girls. She suggests that the media platforms and pages that have a large followers base should be able to utilize their exposure in different ways than it currently exists. Aya pushes for the use of storytelling. She believes that if enough platforms use storytelling to show the achievements of others, girls will feel more confident in their choices and would know that others have gone through this path or have done this achievement. When Aya knew about the Regional Storytelling Project, she was so excited about it since it is one of her dreams to find an initiative that would connect role models to aspiring girls.
This story was written by Tamara Sleiman