For Rutha Nuguse, access to technology has always meant opportunity. It’s a lesson she’s been living since she first began teaching herself computer skills at 16. She leveraged those skills to earn an internship at Microsoft in high school and is now studying computer science at the University of Washington.
Nuguse is a recipient of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, a program that supports STEM education for students in Washington state. She spoke at the GeekWire Summit as part of our Geeks Give Back initiative, sponsored by Bank of America. We’re joining forces to help raise $500,000 in scholarships for WSOS. You can learn more about the campaign and contribute here.
“The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship has meant that I can afford to go to one of the best schools in the country. I can take international internships and pursue networking opportunities,” Nuguse said at the GeekWire Summit.
Watch her inspiring talk and read the full transcript below.
Rutha Nuguse: You might not believe this, but I was 16 years old before there was a computer in my house. My parents immigrated from Eritrea to start a family and provide a better life for their children. I was born in Seattle and grew up speaking Tigrinya and it wasn’t until I started school that I learned English. As you might imagine, that made school very challenging. Without a computer, there was no easy access to Word or Google or online assignments. My brothers and sisters, and I struggled to keep up. Everyday, after school, my mother took me and my five siblings to the library to do homework on a public computer. I was lucky and no one had booked the computer ahead of me. I could use it for an hour at a time. I was sixteen the day that huge Dell package arrived. It was a breathtaking experience. Opening up that box, taking out the monitor, the keyboard and the mouse. Unwinding all the little black twist ties. That day, a door opened to my future.
I was obsessed with the possibility that the computer represented. I used it everyday as much as I could. There was no one to teach me so I would wake up early to teach myself basic computer skills and master keyboarding. My father speaks ten languages, but he works as an industrial cleaner to give our family the chance to one day live the American dream. He wakes up at 5 a.m. and starts work at the Seattle housing authority at seven. He finishes at three thirty PM with just enough time to get to his second job at five to midnight. He gets home to sleep for four hours, then starts again. He works seven days a week.
My father’s work ethic makes me want to do the impossible. Makes me believe that anything is possible with hard work. For him, for my mother, for my brothers and sisters, I choose to embrace all that my education can offer. To become the leader I know I could be.
A second door opened when I was in twelfth grade. I was selected to join the Microsoft apprentice program, which was the first full year high school internship of its kind. Just twenty students were selected my year to develop the skills, experiences, and networks that are critical to professional success.
The first day I stepped onto the Microsoft campus, I felt like I had the key to the kingdom. I treated everyday as if it was the last day of the program and told myself, “If I don’t network now, there won’t be another opportunity.” No one is paying attention to that one high school girl working at Microsoft. You see, I knew this is is my future. I was going to be a programmer. Everyone I talked to, I shared my dream and stepped up to every experience offered. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.
At Microsoft, I received the best gift. Even better than that Dell, I was assigned a mentor named Lulu and met another students like me. With their help, I learned to believe in myself. Without their support, I wouldn’t have been encouraged to consider college or even know how to apply. Don’t think, don’t ever think, that you can’t impact a young person’s life. My mentor inspired me to reach for a high-demand, high-tech career that I would have never considered. The third door opened to my future when I was awarded a Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. Because of the opportunity scholarship, I am the first in my family to attend college.
Without the scholarship, I wouldn’t be pursuing a computer science degree at the University of Washington. I am sure I wouldn’t be speaking at the GeekWire Summit. The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship has meant that I can afford to go to one of the best schools in the country. I can take international internships and pursue networking opportunities. I am connected so many financial and academic and professional supports. Seeing my father work so hard pushes me, inspires me, and motivates me to never quit, never give up. My Microsoft mentor showed me the way and the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship made it possible.
In ten years, I will have my own innovation center and I’ll be hiring. I want people to see a woman of color rebuilding computers. I want to communicate computer engineering to young people. I want to be role model for the next generation. I want them to see themselves, male or female, of any color, of any income bracket, to really see that they have a place in a STEM career. I would tell them, “Everyday is an open door.”