Walk Into Computer Science – Balbine O. M. Etoga

In Africa, we are not expected to be out-spoken as women. However, Olive has a different approach to life and that has helped her succeed in computer science.

Hi Olive, thank you for joining me today! For the sake of our audience, kindly introduce yourself
Thank you for inviting me here. My name is Balbine Olive Mboua Etoga from Cameroon. I am currently a Machine learning Intern at Manobi-Africa in Dakar, Sénégal. I come from a computer science background, with a master I from the University of Yaounde I (Cameroon). I moved to Sénégal to join the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences for a master’s in mathematical sciences, specializing in big data.

I am also the president of Women in STEM Inspiring Girls for Africa’s Development, an association that my classmate and I formed because of our passion for more African girls in STEM.

About my personal life; I am married with two children – a boy and a girl. It’s not easy to be in STEM while having other responsibilities but I do it with passion and I am enjoying it.

Walk us through your journey into computer science
I liked computer science since high school but wanted to be a doctor since my mother was one. With the guidance of my high school teacher, I started liking computer science more than any other career path. I remember being the only girl in the science class during my A’Level. This made me wonder why people always said sciences were hard yet I was the one in the class, haha. How could they know the difficulty more than I who was taking the classes! It was a known mentality that sciences were for boys, not girls.

I remember liking Physics very much during my A’Level and was ready to continue with that at the university. However, I met someone who looked at my transcript and made me realize how good my Mathematics grades were. Just like my high school teacher, he advised me to try computer science as my first choice.

Our first classes had about 1,500 students but these numbers were reduced after a month, to 200 students. I was lucky to have my name listed after the selection of the 200 students. It gave me so much joy to know that I was good enough to be selected for such a course. This was my first motivation for my entire degree.

As I said, I initially wanted to be a medical doctor but realized that I could apply my computer science to any field that I wanted and make an impact.

At what point along your journey, did you realize that you could build a career in computer science?
That was when I joined AIMS Senegal. I remember my acceptance letter came with an option of big data. We did all kinds of courses that seemed out of my field of comfort – which was big data at that time – but I was reminded that I needed Mathematics to be able to understand what was happening behind the computer. It made me realize that the way I was building algorithms wasn’t suitable because I had thrown Mathematics away. After the program, I continued improving my skills in computer science.

AIMS also helped me understand more about my passion for encouraging young African girls to join STEM. This is where I met my friend, with whom we started the association back home. Just like in my degree and high school, we were few girls in those classes. I feel like I owe this to my continent to ensure that more girls join STEM.

What has been the most challenging point on your journey?
Hhmm….being a woman in STEM is not easy because people around you make sure that you understand your “inabilities” as a woman when it comes to STEM. This was my very first challenge and it is wrong! My course-mates used to tell me to go to the kitchen and prepare them a meal as they work on the projects on my behalf. They assumed that I didn’t have the ability to take on any tasks in computer science.

Another challenge is being married and building a career at the same time. I have a husband and children who have needs. To them, I am a mother and wife, not a young woman trying to find my way in STEM. My career projects are not a priority to them. This is not a bad thing but it is the reality for me.

Poverty is another challenge I faced a lot while growing up. I wished to attend some schools in my country but couldn’t because my parents didn’t have that kind of money. Thank God AIMS gave me a scholarship and I was able to get first-class education for free. I was able to do big data through qualified people for free. This would be different in any traditional institution.

Where I am in Senegal, my biggest challenge is the language. I know that they are francophones but it’s hard for me to pass my message about STEM on to younger girls that I interact with since they are speaking their mother tongue “wolof”. I need to find someone to help me interpret.

How have you been able to overcome all these challenges?
I was in a class with boys and used to perform better than them. For me, that has been a stepping stone for my belief in what women can achieve in STEM. I understand that success has nothing to do with my gender, as long as I put in the work.

About family, I have made them understand that I love them but also have dreams that I need to fulfill. I am lucky to have a husband in the same field. So, it’s not hard for him to realize that I am working on something serious. I have made it intentional to take my kids with me to work when it’s possible. This way, they stop thinking about me leaving them behind every time and see it as a way of showing off my beautiful workplace to them.

Another thing that keeps me moving is my character. I am a very honest and straightforward person. If I don’t like something, I say it. This has helped me handle some uncomfortable situations well and still be able to maintain friendships – of course with people who understand my approach to life, haha.

Let’s talk about some of the prestigious moments you have encountered so far
I don’t have any international awards but have some acknowledgments. I used to receive all kinds of gifts and prizes in high school because of my good performance. In university, the president of the country used to give 50,000 to very well-performing students and I was on the list.

Before moving to Senegal, I was working with a startup in Cameroon where my boss used to praise my hard work and commitment. This made me feel very good and appreciated.

At AIMS Senegal, I was selected among the 5 students to talk about their experiences and goals in life. These “simple” forms of recognition make me very appreciative of life.

How do you enjoy spending time away from work?
I like singing – I have been in the choir before. I also enjoy dancing, especially my traditional dance, haha. Spending time with children is another thing I enjoy. They can be my children or not. I learn a lot from them.

Do you have a favorite quote?
I like the saying, “push until something happens” ~ anonymous. I know life is not easy but we all need to keep pushing until we see change.

What would you say to a young girl in STEM?
Look at Africa and how many problems we have. They are all waiting for us to come up with solutions. As a girl in STEM, you are going to face challenges but you need to know what you want and stick to that. You can do STEM and still do everything else that you want to do, like, have a family, get married,… It won’t be easy, but it’s doable.

Thank you so much, Olive, for speaking with me. I admire your confidence in what you have to offer to the computer science world. Cheers to more success.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you Words That Count For making me the STEM spotlight. I hope that through the message you have given me the opportunity to pass on to young girls, STEM will no longer be subject to gender stereotypes.

    1. It is such an honor for us to write about amazing women like you, Olive. May you keep soaring in life.

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