Teen Girl Loves Computer Science, But Struggles To Fit In

Aug 26, 2014

It was the first day of freshman year at Rainier Beach High School and everyone had first day jitters. The first period bell rang: computer science class. It wasn't a good experience for 16-year-old Ifrah Abshir.

"I could never get it right," Abshir said. "Everything just kept crashing. Nothing worked, and I got mad, and I'm short tempered!"

As time went by, computer science started making sense to Abshir. That's when she fell in love with it.

Frank Martinez is a volunteer programmer who helps run the computer science program at Rainier Beach. He helped Abshir understand the concepts of computer science and how to code.

"Ifrah was probably one of my more curious and explorative students," said Martinez. "She was pretty good about going and conducting her own exploration to try and determine what she needed to know and where her skill gaps were."

After finishing her first semester of computer science, Abshir's teacher asked her to speak at a bill signing at Rainier Beach High School. The bill was to make computer science a math credit in Washington state and the event included the governor and state legislators.

In her speech, Abshir explained what happened after she coded an app that got published to the Microsoft Windows store.

"That's when I realized that, oh wow, this is actually really fun. You actually feel the feeling of excitement. You actually can go someplace with this. The love just blossomed. I felt like I was in a committed relationship with computer science," she told the audience.

After the speech, Abshir got emails every day asking her to come speak in different places. "I guess I probably did a good job," Abshir said.

Abshir spoke at a state conference about computer science and technology. She also spoke at the University of Washington, and at a bunch of Microsoft events. She has been featured on the webpage about Microsoft's YouthSpark initiative for her experience in Technology Education & Literacy in Schools (TEALS), a YouthSpark program that helps attract teens to computer science.

The tech industry is trying to attract more girls like Abshir. Only 20 percent of people currently working in the tech industry are women. In 2013, 18 percent of people who took the Advanced Placement test for computer science were girls, 4 percent of them were African-American.

Abshir appreciates the industry for going out of its way to become more diverse. But she still stands out.

"I know that because I'm African-American, because I'm Muslim, and because I'm a girl, that people want to use me for my image," Abshir said. "Sometimes they don't care about what I say. They just care about using my face and being like, 'Oh diversity, we represent all types of things!' But to me, I don't think about that. I just think about the benefit to me, and how my name gets networked."

Even with all this attention, Abshir has learned that breaking into the tech industry and making a name for herself isn't easy.

When Abshir turned 16, she applied to the Microsoft summer high school internship. She talked about the internship every day, and told all her friends how amazing it was. Governor Jay Inslee, whom she met at the bill signing, wrote her a letter of recommendation for the internship. But even with the letter, she didn't get it.

"I felt a little bit hurt," Abshir said. "My mentality at the time was that all the things I've done for Microsoft - I've done all these speeches, I represented their company multiple times, I did all these things and I did them all for free. And they couldn't give me one simple internship in the summertime? That was my mentality then."

But now Abshir is motivated more than ever. She knows that the internship was very competitive. "There were people who were 10 light years ahead of me, people who were amazing," Abshir said. "It made me realize that I could always do better. And that I should never give up."

Abshir still codes all the time. Her younger sister, Hafsa, said Abshir often stays on her phone until2 a.m. coding, prompting arguments between them over when to shut off the light.

Even though she stands out, Abshir brings her friends along with her to make things more comfortable for her in this field.

"Because I know that computer science is becoming everything in the world," Abshir said. "Society is reaching the point where tech is how we breathe. And if I'm going to take on tech, I'm going to try to get to the top. And I'm going to bring my friends along with me. Because really my friends are the ones who push me, and I want them to get the same opportunities I do."

Abshir is now a Microsoft YouthSpark Advocate. And that internship she didn't get? She isn't giving up, and plans to apply again next year.

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive’s Summer Introductory Workshop. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.