Jelani Nelson is an Ethiopian – American (assistant) professor at Harvard University in Computer Science. In 2011, he created AddisCoder, a summer program in Ethiopia and help teach young people on programming and algorithms. He reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on the importance of the program, on students he helped mentor and on why such an initiative is important for the next generation of Ethiopian scholars. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Jelani, it has been almost seven years since you started the first edition of AddisCoder. Tell me about AddisCoder and why you saw a need for it within Ethiopia?
Jelani Nelson: I first thought to run the program in Spring 2011. I was finishing my computer science PhD at MIT and had lined up my current faculty job at Harvard and a sequence of postdoctoral research positions beforehand.
I then decided that Spring that I would take a summer vacation in Addis Ababa to spend time with some relatives, and shortly after that decision I started brainstorming about what activities I could engage in during my trip. I remembered having learned about the MIT Africa Information Technology Initiative (AITI) when I was an undergraduate at MIT, founded by MIT students Paul Njoroge (Kenya), Martin Mbaya (Kenya), and Solomon Assefa (Ethiopia). AITI ran summer programs in several African countries, including Ethiopia, teaching both computer science skills and entrepreneurship. Influenced by their vision, I then thought I would do something similar: teach topics within computer science I was passionate about to Ethiopian university students over the summer.
I’m certain I would not have had the idea if it weren’t for AITI, even though at the time I had never even personally met any of the three, demonstrating the positive impact that role models can have. In any case, AddisCoder really started with that: me wanting to teach material that I was very excited about, but there’s the obvious bonus that computer science knowledge is a very useful thing to share with students in today’s economy.
Source: The Reporter