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Representation in STEM: Forough, Fereshteh

A digital conduit for student-curated content presenting the contributions and challenges faced by underrepresented prominent figures in STEM. Physical banners were placed on display at Baldwin Wallace in spring 2022 with supporting programming scheduled.

Fereshteh Forough

Picture of Fereshteh from her TED Talk ‘The IT women of Afghanistan’ on April 21, 2017.

“It doesn’t matter what you have or where you are. The most important thing is that you have faith in yourself.”

Fereshteh Forough is a refugee-born leader in the field of technology and CEO of Afghanistan’s first all-female coding academy, Code to Inspire. One of eight children, Fereshteh was born in Iran when her family fled in the early 80s due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Fereshteh and her family returned to live in Herat, Afghanistan, where she finished high school. Despite not having any experience in computing, Fereshteh passed the entrance exam for Herat University and was placed in the computer science undergraduate program. She quickly became fascinated by her computer science coursework and the aspects of critical thinking and creativity. She earned her Bachelor’s degree, then went to the Technical University of Berlin in Germany to obtain her Master’s degree. Afterward, she returned to her alma mater, Herat University, as a Computer Science Professor.

Fereshteh notes from her experience as a refugee that “great things can start with empty hands”.  She relates this to computer programming and how empowering it can be when you do not have all the resources but instead must put them all together. She offers the best advice: “It doesn’t matter what you have or where you are. The most important thing is that you have faith in yourself.” Fereshteh relates this personal power to the ability to empower other people. While teaching at Herat University, Fereshteh recognized the effects of the patriarchal society. She noted that male students would not attend her lectures because she was female. Additionally, female students would often not participate to avoid receiving criticism or being shamed. These challenges motivated Fereshteh to want to change the culture in computing, and in 2015, she founded Code to Inspire, an organization that would create encrypted virtual classrooms, upload course content online, and give laptops and internet packages to students so the Taliban reign wouldn’t hinder any women from getting an education.

Getting this program started though was not easy. While working as a professor at Herat University, the Taliban threatened Fereshteh’s life, so she was forced to leave her beloved home and moved to the United States.  She landed in New York City, a journey she accredits for learning how to be a global citizen. However, Fereshteh did not let this setback stop her dreams. Utilizing the internet, Fereshteh developed Code to Inspire in the US and delivered it to eager female students in Herat, Afghanistan. From fundraising, shipping equipment, recruiting mentors, registering applicants, and curriculum development, everything happened online.  Through it all, Fereshteh provided a safe and educational environment for free, so girls could feel comfortable learning and overcoming the stereotypes placed on women. Though Code to Inspire still receives backlash and criticisms from men, this one-year, free program uses technology education and outreach to provide Afghan women with leverage in their fight for social, political, and economic equality. Fereshteh knows that some students who come into Code to Inspire have never touched a computer or been online in their lives. In a country where 85% of women do not receive a formal education, Fereshteh takes this challenge head-on with Code to Inspire and aims to empower girls while bridging the gender gap in technology fields. Fereshteh and Code to Inspire are credited with working towards “Afghanistan 2.0”, which is all about global citizenship, connectivity, and financial inclusion of all women.

Contributing BW student:

Sydney Broucek: Biology major, Forensic Science minor

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