Magreth Mushi

Magreth Mushi Calls Mentoring a Magical Experience

From the time she walked into her computer science class at the University of Dar es Salaam, Magreth Mushi has broken barriers.

On that day in 2005, she was one of just two women in a class of 60, and the message was loud and clear from her male classmates: Girls can't do this. "Through the whole experience, I wanted to prove them wrong. I studied really, really hard," Magreth recalls. She was named best female math student; though she is so proud of this achievement, she still asks today as a Fulbright scholar, did they need to segregate the award by gender?

Her decision to forge ahead has paid off: Magreth earned prestigious scholarships from Google, and the Schlumberger Foundation and recently finished her computer science Ph.D. program as a Fulbright scholar specializing in network security.

Magreth feels blessed that she had the support of her accountant mother to try computer science. But in Tanzania, as in many places, there were no female mentors when she started studying college-level STEM subjects more than a decade ago. Undaunted, she started her own mentoring program for girls and young women, and took a job aimed at improving higher education in Tanzania for all students.

Her mentoring activities did not end after she arrived in the U.S. to study at North Carolina State University. In a chance meeting at a conference in 2013 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Magreth ran into Ira Pramanick, an accomplished Google software engineer. Ira told her about a program she had founded, More Active Girls in Computing (MAGIC). MAGIC provides one-on-one mentoring to encourage girls and young women to develop the confidence and skills they need to study and succeed in STEM subjects in middle and high school.

"We had the same vision of helping girls," she says of Ira, leading to her to join MAGIC as a mentor. "What we are trying to tell them is that first of all you have to believe you belong in STEM studies, then do your best and don't quit."

Magreth has worked with several girls in recent years, including San Jose high school freshman Morgan C. Morgan learned to use Maya, a computer animation and modeling software, to create 3-D models of homes and furniture out of polygons. Now, she wants to pursue a career in 3-D animation. "She simply needed someone to help her find resources to get up and running," Magreth says. But other girls need far more encouragement to overcome doubts and feelings like they don't belong in STEM, even daughters whose parents have successful high-tech careers.

"Mentoring is not just about the technical aspects, you also have to help mentees understand they have the capabilities and help bring out confidence." It takes time, and one-on-one coaching is instrumental. Sometimes, to encourage them, Magreth tells the girls about her failures before the successes. "We don't write failures on our resumes, but failures are great lessons for ourselves and others, and failing more than once is perfectly fine."

She says mentoring is a magical experience for her.

Magreth recently returned to live in Tanzania with her family, including three daughters, and has expanded her passion for mentoring. She is the CEO for Tanzania Education and Research Network (TERNET), a network of Tanzanian higher education and research institutions that provide infrastructure and associated services to promote sharing of education and research resources in Tanzania and beyond. She has also started a networking lab at the Open University of Tanzania (OUT), where she is the Principal Investigator (PI), supervising Master's and Ph.D. students in the networking area. Furthering her goal to improve the status of women in the workforce, she has initiated a collaboration between MAGIC and OUT to establish similar a mentoring program at OUT. The program, named Big Sister in STEM (BigSiS), is expected to launch in August 2017.

Based on her MAGIC experience, Magreth knows first-hand how important it is for girls and young women to have role models and a support network. So, she is continuing her commitment to providing girls with diverse resources to fuel their imaginations and encourage them to accomplish goals they never thought possible. She recalls, "My mother was always expecting me to be an accountant like her, but that's because she didn't know about computer science back then. Now, she is so proud of what I have been able to accomplish."

Finally, Magreth believes more women should become mentors. "I would like to call on all women in STEM careers to consider mentoring, sponsoring, and supporting girls and young women as they find their voices in these male-dominated career paths. Whether that is through MAGIC, BigSiS, or other means, we need to be there for them."

By Mary Anne Ostrom,
Former San Jose Mercury News Technology Reporter.