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Encouraging Girls to Embrace Tech, No Matter Where They Live (Video)

The State Department's “Tech Girls” program educates girls from the Middle East and North Africa.

Neil Hickey/Re/code

Waad “Dede” Krishan is probably having a better summer than you.

The bubbly 16-year-old Jordanian is on a free, three-week trip to the United States (“It’s my first travel ever!”) where she’s making new friends, learning Web design and meeting executives at some of the top tech companies in the U.S., including Google and Tumblr.

Hunched over a PC recently, Krishan was putting the finishing touches on a new website she hopes will one day help teach other girls the things she’s learned this summer.

She goes to “a good school, but we don’t focus on technology,” says Krishan, who sports a peach headscarf and says she’s achieved black-belt status in Taekwondo back home.

“I was thinking about having a project and getting lessons for the girls in my school so I can [teach] them about all of the information I learn here and share it with them,” said Krishan, who wants to study engineering in college.

Krishan is among two dozen Middle Eastern and North African girls visiting the U.S. this summer as part of a State Department-funded exchange program called Tech Girls, which encourages teen girls to consider careers in technology.

Launched by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton three years ago, the program provides an opportunity to show bright, motivated Middle Eastern girls the career opportunities that they could have if they go into technology, as well as teaching them some basic Web design and java-programming skills that they can continue to hone when they return home.

All of the girls in the program are required to pass along what they’ve learned to other teens in their communities through community projects, such as Web design classes or presentations to kids in their communities.

Encouraging girls to get into science and technology fields has been a push in the U.S., but the gender imbalance is really more of a global issue. The girls in this program come from countries (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, the Palestinian Territories, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Yemen) where women don’t generally go into technical fields and that aren’t necessarily known for being hubs of tech innovation.

Imene Benzenache, a 17-year-old from Algeria, is planning on restarting her high school’s computer club. The youngest of three girls, Benzenache was working on a Web design project at a one-week tech camp that all of the girls attended in a basement classroom last week at American University in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a giant scroll book to share their writings and photographs,” she said. “It’s going to be in three languages. I want people to share their advice, their dreams, their memories, their poems. It’s completely new.”

The Tech Girls sat side by side with American teens who were also learning Web design and basic java and game programming skills at an iD Tech camp. Several girls wore hijabs to cover their heads, but they were otherwise indistinguishable from the other teens, a jumble of jeans, sneakers and bracelet-covered arms.

One of the few things that seemed to set them apart was that they periodically took breaks to do a special “tech girls” chant they came up with this year.

“I say ‘tech,’ you say ‘girls.’”

“Tech.” “Girls”

“Tech.” “Girls.”

(There were also reported breakouts of Frisbee-throwing and impromptu yoga sessions on the mostly deserted leafy campus outside their basement workroom.)

techgirls_logoAs a deadline approached last Thursday, they began jettisoning the chant (as well as planned snack breaks) to finish their projects before the tech camp portion of their program ended.

The girls who become part of the program take it seriously and don’t mess around, says Michele Christle, coordinator for the Tech Girls program. When they return home, the girls will continue to get support from the program through follow-up visits and help getting their community-based service projects up and running, she said.

“We believe that these skills will help empower these girls to be more of a part of the job market, and when we have more people participating in these areas, we have stronger, more stable communities,” Christle said.

Operated by Legacy International, a nonprofit that runs several youth-based exchange programs, it is being funded by the State Department as part of a broader exchange program designed to help improve the U.S.’s image in the Middle East. Local schools nominate girls for the program and U.S. embassies choose candidates after the girls go through an interview process.

The girls are spending two weeks in Washington and another week in New York, where they’ll visit various companies, including Verizon and Google, and take in some local tourist attractions.

“In Egypt, only boys do this,” says Mai Hashad, a 17-year-old from Cairo who goes to a STEM school for girls. She applied for the U.S.-based program even though “my parents think it’s a weird idea — but it’s okay. They’re supportive.”

In her country, “girls don’t find a lot of jobs in engineering. They always hire boys,” she said. “But outside Egypt, they hire girls, and I’m thinking of completing my work and taking a master’s degree in these things in places where I can learn best and have jobs.”

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