An ambivert who loves music, coding and robotics, Future Nation Schools’ matriculant and former Head Girl, Khanyisa Xaba never thought she would get the opportunity to travel to America for the highly esteemed TechGirls Programme (an international exchange programme designed to empower and inspire young women from around the world to pursue careers in science and technology). With no expectations of being selected for this exclusive training programme, Khanyisa applied. To her astonishment, she became one of just 126 fortunate and deserving young women from around the world to be chosen for this educational adventure of a lifetime. Now, she’s using her experience to empower young girls in Roodepoort to pursue a STEM career.

Born in the township of Vosloorus, Khanyisa grew up in a household where music was a staple and recalls the many Sunday mornings she and her younger sister would clean to the sounds of legendary musicians. “One of the core memories I have of my childhood is the CD rack that stood in the corner of our dining room that housed the works of any artist you can imagine,” she says. Khanyisa’s interest in coding and robotics was birthed at Future Nation Schools: Fleurhof in grade 8 and 9 during her Computing lessons when she realised how well she performed in the subject.

This propelled her to volunteer for the coding and robotics events and programmes that were facilitated by Future Nation School’s sister company, Sifiso EdTech, and eventually led her to apply for the TechGirls Programme, which she attended earlier this year.

The TechGirls Programme is an intensive three-week training programme that takes place in the United States, with the aim of instilling leadership and STEM skills in young girls from across the globe. This year’s TechGirls brought together 126 young women from 36 countries and their activities consisted of educational trainings and site visits, networking and learning from STEM leaders, conversations with teens from around the world and immersing themselves into the American culture. Khanyisa was one of just four South African young women selected for this prestigious programme.

Speaking about her experience, Khanyisa recalls how overwhelmed she was on the day of departure, as this was her first time stepping on a plane and flying out of the country.

All this was short-lived though because, as soon as she landed in the US and she began to settle in and familiarise herself with Tech home base in Washington DC where she and her fellow participants were given a thorough breakdown of the programme calendar and what was expected of them. “We were assigned to our different pods, which are the different focus groups of the courses we selected, and I was part of the ‘Rhythm’ pod where we merged music and technology by making songs using coding” says Khanyisa.

The intense work started when the participants relocated to Virginia Tech. Here, their activities included STEM instruction, leadership clinics, team building exercise and other activities. “That is where we experienced university life and classes as a university student” adds Khanyisa. This was a highlight of her experience as it allowed her to get a better understanding of tertiary education and life after high school.

The final component of the programme was the Community Immersion and STEM Career Exploration where the young women spent time with their host family and explored their host community through job shadowing and networking. Khanyisa’s host family was based in Denver and, it was there, that she received first-hand experience of the American culture.

Part of being a Tech Girls is the expectation that each participant carries out a Community Action Project (CAP) to positively impact other people around them.

For her Community Action Project, Khanyisa visited her primary school, Princess Primary School in Roodepoort, on Tuesday where she held a STEM seminar for 191 Grade 7 girls focusing on Technology and the ways we can transform our communities using technology.

Her message for girls wanting to pursue a career in the STEM field: “The only person who can push you to be the best version of yourself is you; there is no time to wait on others to motivate or encourage you to go after what you want. As women, should all work together towards normalising females in STEM by actively choosing to not identify as a ‘girl’ in construction or “the first ‘female’ engineer”. She believes that sentiments like these give off the impression that women are not as competent as men to be in STEM and highlights how women are evaluated through the lens of gender. “You are human before you are a woman, you are you!” she concludes.

Khanyisa is currently writing her final IEB exams and hopes to pursue a Bachelor of Science Degree in Information and Technology, specifically Security and Network Engineering, next year.