Hanen Alkhafaji: Paving the Way for Women in STEM

After suffering from an accident as a child, in the middle of a war-torn Iraq, Hanen Alkhafaji realized very early she wanted to help others. In her story she shares bits and pieces of her journey, and you can click here for the full story.

When I was 2 years old, I lived in Iraq with my family in the middle of a war zone. Due to the war, we were without water and electricity. This led to an accident in which I burned my legs with hot oil. A generous pediatrician managed to get my parents the medicine I needed to calm the wounds down. We were very lucky to have had that happen because we fled the country shortly after that accident and lived in refugee camps before coming to the United States. Had the wounds not been addressed, they could have been greatly infected during the long relocation process.

Even though I was much too young to remember this encounter, my parents have repeated it to me many times, so I feel as though I remember it all so well. Since hearing the story, I always wanted to be just like that pediatrician. I wanted to have a career that was geared towards generously helping others. So, I set out to become a pediatrician myself and collected magazine clippings of admirable doctors who worked with Doctors Without Borders to help keep me motivated and focused.

Unfortunately, after my freshman year in college, I quickly realized that although I had the passion for helping others, I lacked the necessary interest in biology. I knew that I’d never thrive in a career path that I wasn’t completely excited about. In addition to studying medicine, I had decided early that I would take computer classes as a backup plan in case medicine did not work out. I found that when I wanted a break from memorizing concepts and words for my biology class, I would seek refuge in my computer programming projects. I enjoyed learning computer languages and the problem-solving aspect of computer science. I didn’t need to memorize anything because I enjoyed it so much that I simply remembered it all. Many students in my premed classes were that very same way when it came to biology and chemistry because they were passionate about those subjects.

That’s when I discovered that my passion was in computer programming. I was at first upset with myself for not being able to meet my goal of pediatrics and helping ailing children around the world. However, a kind-hearted friend told me that I shouldn’t feel bad, because computer science would give me the tools I needed to help others, too. They reminded me that I wanted to help people and that that could be accomplished in more ways than just medicine. I look back now and feel that they were absolutely right and I have no regrets.

I have had the good fortune of very rarely facing obstacles or challenges in my field, even though I am a minority in both race and gender. I have been treated very fairly both in academia and the workforce. I have encountered nothing but respect, kindness and fair treatment. My dad has been the biggest champion behind many of my successes. I have one sister and three brothers. My dad never made us feel that our genders mattered when it came to his expectations of us. I’ve carried that with me throughout my life. I never expect any special treatment because of my gender and I haven’t come across any obstacles, so far, because of it.

I feel that society has done a great job of removing the negative stereotypes of young people who are smart. There have been enough examples of young people who found success by using their brains, and society is beginning to applaud and encourage that rather than make fun of it.

Just as society has done for the population as a whole, women should do for other women. They should encourage each other to pursue technology, especially women who have already found a career in technology. They should reach out to younger women who are still unsure of what they want to pursue, and share their experiences with them. Particularly, women should be taught at a young age not to fear mathematics. We seem to have conquered women’s fear of science, and we see lots of women involved in nursing and medicine, but mathematics is still a source of fear and avoidance when it should not be.

Girls need to be exposed to mathematics at a young age. There are many wonderful applications being developed that make mathematics fun for young people, and I think that is a great movement forward. I have seen very young girls excited to play a mathematics game on a mobile device because it’s interactive; they’re doing math without realizing it. Of course, software engineering made those types of apps possible and so it’s a continuous circle of positivity.

The more women that pursue technology positions, the more women we have in the industry who understand young girls and can help build applications and programs that are geared towards pulling more women into this industry. Also, female role models in this field should be more apparent and should make an effort to speak to young women about their experiences so that they can encourage these girls not to shy away from software engineering.

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