Interview with South African Women Students in SCS

There are 11 women from South Africa enrolled in the SCS MSIT program. We spoke with 2 of them, Nonzaliseko Beryl Mbeki and Nonceba Carol Mkrwele, about how they came to CMU, why they chose to study Computer Science in South Africa, and generally about their lives here and back home.
Left to Right: Nonceba Carol Mkrwele, Nonzaliseko Beryl Mbeki

How did you end up here?

Mbeki: We came through the department of communication of the government in South Africa and Vodacom, an IT company -- they specialize in cell phones. They wanted to send a group of women to a technological institution, so they ended up partnering with Carnegie Mellon. In South Africa the IT industry is mostly dominated by men, so they came up with the idea of starting a program to train women in technology. We had to make applications. We heard about it because Vodacom sent representatives to our universities to recruit.

And they were encouraging women?

Mbeki: Yes, because like I said it's very rare to see women in the IT businesses. If you go there, the developers, the programmers, are only men. They are trying to level out the ratio of men and women.

Is that coming from the government?

Mbeki: Yes, the government was looking for sponsors and Vodacom was willing to be a sponsor.

Do you have any obligation to work for them?

Mbeki: Yes, when we get back we'll work for the Department of Communications for at least two years.

Did you both come from the same university?

Mbeki: No, different universities. I am from the University of the Western Cape.

Mkrwele: I am from the University of Forthare.

What did you both major in?

Mbeki and Mkrwele: Computer Science.

What was the ratio of men to women?

Mbeki: I'd say about 70% men to 30% women.

Mkrwele: I'd say it was a bit more for me -- 60% men to 40% women.

How would you compare the Computer Science curriculum here to South Africa?

Mbeki: It's very different. The campus lifestyle here is very different. Students have more freedom to do what they want. For example, students can just pick up a book and study in class. The level of commitment here is higher. The students seem more committed to what they are doing. It's not like someone has to push them to do what they are doing -- it's not like someone has to push them from behind. In South Africa, if the lecturer doesn't push you then you just relax. And the equipment here is different. You can go to any class and there are computers. In our case, only if you are doing Computer Science are you exposed to computers. There is very little computer literacy. People would ask the CS majors to type up their papers and operate computers.

Do people have computers in their homes?

Mbeki and Mkrwele: It's very rare, very rare.

Mbeki: Even if they do, they would not have access to the Internet.

Some of the universities are underprivileged universities and don't have the same technology as the others. The universities were classified as white universities or black universities. The white universities had better technology. There shouldn't be that difference. They are trying to get the standard of the black universities to be the same as the white universities -- now they are trying to bridge that gap.

How did you get interested in computer science?

Mbeki: Studying computer science is generally not encouraged for women. My mom was encouraging me to be a doctor. I went to the university just knowing that I was going to get a BS degree in something.

I saw people in banks who were working with computers, and at school, and I wanted to do what they were doing. But you [also] see that only men are doing that and you thought you couldn't because it was not expected by society. You thought it's only a guy thing when you see them play games on the computers. You didn't even know how to do that. And they'd laugh at you and say, "you don't even know this game". That gave me the determination to say, "okay, I want to beat them".

Mkrwele: I wanted to do medicine at first and didn't know anything about computers. When I went to the university, I met friends who were talking about checking email and I wanted to check email too. I got interested in how the computers could do this, and how the Internet worked -- I wanted to know what was going on behind it all. I didn't know about it before going to the university. We were happy to have studied computer science.

What about the faculty? Were they supportive? Were there any female professors?

Mbeki: I was not really encouraged by my professors and they were kind of negative towards us too. There was only 1 female faculty among the 7. But now it's beginning to get balanced.

Do you feel different in classes, being in a minority?

Mbeki: In my case I didn't feel very different. [Although] there were times when you feel out of it when doing the work. Sometimes we're put into groups and you see the guys all working together. And you just have to prove yourself to them. You have to say, "I can do this".

Mkrwele: You always have to prove yourselves to guys. As guys [it is assumed] they can always do that [the work], but you have to prove yourself because it's difficult for them to accept that females can do it too.

Did you feel confident about computer science?

Mbeki and Mkrwele: Yes

Mbeki: I take it as a challenge to beat the guys. There seems to be a lot of competition involved with the guys, versus women who support and encourage each other -- they say "go girl!".

More women are fighting for power and to be recognized that they can do something, but it's difficult with our cultural background. They just don't encourage you much because they don't believe you should be exposed to that sort of thing -- they think you should stay home and be a housewife.

So where did you get encouragement from?

Mbeki: My mom encouraged me.

Mkrwele: My mom supported me too.

Is this a generation thing -- women now being attracted to computer science?

Mbeki: I think so. I wouldn't say that we're rebellious; I think we're more in the light.

So what do you learn here?

Mbeki and Mkrwele: We are in the MSIT (Master of Science and Information Technology) program. We take all the courses in the Master of Software Engineering program. We started learning in Africa through online material and communication with the professors.

Learning online was difficult in terms of communicating. Sometimes you'd need to ask the instructor something and they'd take two days to reply. Sometimes you don't know how to explain it in writing -- you need to talk about it. Maybe your program doesn't run -- so it's hard to explain what was wrong -- and you had to send your code over and wait for a reply from your instructor. It's kind of difficult, but we managed. The instructors were very supportive. They were dedicated. Then there was the time difference too. Sometimes they had to wake up early to help us with the questions that we had.

What about the interaction with male students here?

Mbeki: With the male students, we're used to being around men in the courses. It's okay. We're used to that and it goes back to our own university: we are used to having to prove ourselves. They seem very happy to see us here. They're very helpful. Some courses needed work experience, but we don't have any work experience. They explained things to us using their experiences.

Are you the first group of women from South Africa to do this -- to come here?

Mkrwele: Yes, we are the first group. We take ourselves as role models.

How did you prepare yourself to come to the U.S.?

Mbeki and Mkrwele: We were told all about Pittsburgh. We had a video conference with one of our instructors and they told us what to expect, what to bring, etc.

Mkrwele: But when we got here the clothes from South Africa were not too warm and we had to buy winter clothes -- coats and hats and gloves and everything. It was really really cold. We loved the snow. In Africa, you only see it from far away on the tops of the mountains. We had fun in the snow.

Are you enjoying your time here?

Mbeki: Yes, you have to make the most of it.

Mkrwele: I get homesick, especially when everyone is leaving. I am ready to go back when I am done with what I came for.

What's one thing that stands out to you about the U.S.?

Mbeki and Mkrwele: Food! People eat a lot around here. Oh my gosh -- everywhere you go there's food. It was difficult at first. When we went to the grocery store, we had no idea what foods there were. We had to adapt to that as well, but it's fine now. There's also a better transportation system here.

Did you face any problems?

Mbeki: Yes, sometimes you find it difficult to talk to the people and they don't hear what you're saying, especially in restaurants. When you pronounce [words] differently, they won't understand you. They always ask where you're from and say that's a funny accent.

Mkrwele: And the money -- money conversion was difficult because it seems too expensive. You have to adapt to that otherwise you'll end up buying nothing. Food is very expensive here.

What do you do when you're not studying?

Mbeki and Mkrwele: Movies, and we go to the malls. The malls are so small compared to the ones in South Africa. We went to the Waterfront Mall, but it's so small. In Capetown we have a beautiful waterfront with a beach. Now we are going to the Zoo.

by Ting-Chih Shih