Letting values lead the way to meaningful work

Mastercard Foundation Scholar: Furaha Benedict (MSIT ’23)

Giordana Verrengia

Aug 25, 2022

It happened almost by accident that Furaha Benedict (MSIT ’23) wound up studying information technology at CMU-Africa. Since early childhood, she knew that making positive change in the world would be part of her life’s work. Her first ambition was to become a physician, but her family persuaded her to try something else because of how many doctors the Democratic Republic of the Congo, her birthplace, already had. When Benedict applied for undergraduate programs in Tanzania, there were no open slots for civil engineering, a second choice. So, she went back to the drawing board. There was an opening for computer science, but when Benedict enrolled, she wasn’t sure what she could do with that degree. She opted to try the program for a month to see if she’d like it, and she did. The adaptability of computer science was ultimately what drew her in. 

"I just felt like I found myself where I wanted to be, because I was like, 'Okay, this is a place where I can also still make an impact because as a programmer, or anyone invested in technology, I can work in any sector I want,'" Benedict says. "I could create solutions for any of the sectors I dreamed to work in when I was a child."

Studying computer science also piqued an interest in programming and design. "That’s when I got more invested in the designing of some solution that I knew could help the community. That’s how I got more interested in information technology."

Her enthusiasm would lead her to pursue an advanced degree in the subject at CMU-Africa. Finding work as a foreigner in Tanzania requires either graduate school or a lot of experience, so Benedict’s job search as a programmer with only her bachelor’s degree proved frustrating. Being part of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at CMU-Africa, which covers tuition and living expenses, eased the financial burden that might otherwise have prevented Benedict from continuing her education. In many ways, her master’s experience is a marriage of her academic interests and personal values. She gets the best of both worlds—rigorous classes and hands-on, community-oriented projects, often of students’ own design. The curriculum places equal emphasis on hard skills, like research methods, and soft skills, like emotional intelligence.

CMU-Africa’s objective is for students to use their STEM skills to create innovative change in communities across the continent, so academics and a commitment to public service are very intertwined. One class project required Benedict to do field research on local agriculture; It wasn’t interpreting the results that challenged her, but rather optimizing a connection to the community so that her research model was useful and addressed what people really needed. Talking to members of the community you’re serving is critical to doing work that doesn’t just solve a problem, but solves the right problem, as Benedict explains. 

"This research project also helps me think more about involving the people who are facing that challenge to really understand, like, what is the pain point they are facing?"

Benedict sees this as an important change from established research methods. 

"Mostly, science people tend to come up with a problem and find a solution on their own, but that's not the right approach. We have to consult with the people facing the problem to build the solution that will help them."

Give-back projects are important opportunities for Mastercard Scholars to apply their leadership skills. Benedict and a group of her peers at CMU-Africa served undergraduate students around the continent by organizing workshops that reviewed different technical skills.  

Focuses included LinkedIn, to learn networking, and hands-on computer training with programs like Python and C++. The project harnessed technology to bring about change, which is emblematic of CMU-Africa’s philosophy while honoring Benedict’s lifelong goal of helping others. 

"Because Carnegie Mellon itself is a multicultural place, we have many people from many different countries, so we said, 'We want to reach people across the whole of Africa.'" This started with the team reaching out to their communities back home for participants. "We got people from seven countries across Africa to participate," Benedict said of the give-back effort. 

With one year left in her master’s program, Benedict has time to decide her post-graduation plans. She’s considered either becoming an entrepreneur or joining an existing company, possibly as a data scientist or a software engineer. Wherever she decides to go, her values will continue to lead the way. 

"I like a place where they encourage learning, because it’s not just what I’m going to bring to you, but I also have to learn something from where I’m working."