My experience with the MIT ReACT Program

Jerry Vance Anguzu

My experience with the MIT ReACT Program

My life changed in August 2020 when I received an email which said I was among only 50 accepted learners worldwide for the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) Computer and Data Science Certificate Program (CDS). Before receiving that email, I had nervously applied and done the MIT Math Entrance exam. Knowing I was competing with learners worldwide, I remember thinking to myself that maybe I don’t stand a chance. However I believed in myself and did my best and I was so excited when I learnt that I was among the successful applicants to this yearlong blended learning program consisting of four components which leverage the strengths of MIT. Through this program I gained a mastery of computer science and data analytics skills through the completion of a specially curated series of courses on MITx. I then participated in a 10-week virtual Innovation Bootcamp developing valuable understandings of entrepreneurial creativity, leadership, and problem-solving through collaborating and networking with innovators around the world. I then consolidated these skills through the various projects and training I have been able to do ever since. My experience was as follows;

A first taste of entrepreneurship and global-remote collaboration.

Between October and December 2020, I was part of the MIT Innovation Leadership Bootcamp. This was an online bootcamp which brought the rigorous, immersive, collaborative, action-learning experience of the in-person Bootcamps online. Over 10 weeks, I learnt and worked with a global team of innovators carefully selected by MIT Bootcamps to build and deliver value through innovation. I was able to learn principles central to innovation directly from MIT instructors: problem discovery, ideation, user innovation, customer sense-making, and more. From this remarkable opportunity, I was able to hear from entrepreneurs, investors, and others from MIT’s diverse innovation ecosystem.

My team “Ubuntu” was composed of Pavel Ilin, Umer Khan, Bathandile Mthombeni, Amit Sankhala and myself. We were coached by Amani who provided great mentorship to us to help us build our Minimum Viable Product; “schoolbuddy”. The key idea my team had was that the current traditional education system does not connect children with collaborative opportunities across the world and hence children risk having inherent biases about other societies. Schoolbuddy addresses these pain points and helps children to be grounded and culturally in touch.

Schoolbuddy is an online educational platform that facilitates meaningful connections between children around the world. Schoolbuddy has a subscription model where each child is charged annually for the platform access. The schoolbuddy platform creates a sense of belonging to the global community of learners through fun and entertainment by providing quality cross-cultural online educational content which gives children across the world global access at a reduced cost. Schoolbuddy also creates lifetime opportunities and hope for children through meaningful connections which prepare them for the real world to become truly global citizens. Schoolbuddy content is produced by expert course content developers. These courses are developed and produced by a team of script writers, producers, programmers, and instructional designers. The courses are made up of interactive learning activities, projects, documentaries, professional interviews, narration and digital storytelling.

By the end, me and my team Ubuntu were able to design and answer critical business questions like: are we solving an important problem? Do we deliver superior solutions? Are we doing this in a financially sustainable way? Among others. To me, this was my first real hands-on experience working with a global team of innovators and entrepreneurs from which I learnt so much.

print(“Hello world, MIT ReACT!”)

Ever since writing my first “hello world” program in Python through the course Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python, I have been obsessed with the idea of using software and leveraging data to solve practical problems. This course set me on a trajectory to become a data scientist and software engineer.

Looking back at my life, perhaps this was the single most important course I have ever taken. This course introduced me to the intellectual enterprise of programming and computer science. as a tool to solve real-world analytical problems using Python. Prior to this course I had no exposure to computer science or programming. This was my first true baby step. For me this course was my very first stepping stone to define the career aspirations I have today because it not only introduced me to programming but it also introduced me to online learning.

I was able to learn the Python programming language, some simple algorithms, testing and debugging, introduction to algorithmic complexity, Data structures together with computationally and writing programs to tackle useful problems.

After this first course, I then took my second course; Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science. Through this course I learnt the application of computation to understand real-world phenomena. This course was in advanced programming in Python 3 and it further introduced me to new ideas in computer science such as Knapsack problem, Graphs and graph optimization, Dynamic programming, Plotting with the pylab package, Random walks, Probability, Distributions, Monte Carlo simulations, Curve fitting, Statistical fallacies, Plotting with the pylab package, Stochastic programming and statistical thinking, Monte Carlo simulations among others.

As projects, I wrote several programs for example one that simulated a robot vacuum cleaning a room and I also modeled the population dynamics of viruses replicating and drug treatments in a patient’s body. This cemented my knowledge of the python programming language.

My first Mentorship

Through MIT ReACT and Na’amal, for the first time in my life I was partnered with a mentor, Stella Huang. This has been such an amazing experience for me having someone I can always talk to who helps guide me and reflect through everything. My mentor became my friend and she has supported me through my skills training and remote work placement opportunities.

Through my mentee experiences, I have discovered many different things about myself. I learned that I am good at formulating big ideas and always want to push myself to get better. I also realized that I am someone who is goal orientated and likes to have a focus on the bigger picture during all my discussions. During every mentee meeting, I like to share my ideas and get a different perspective from my mentor. I also like to revisit goals my mentor had set during the first session and write new goals, as I measure success through results. An interesting thing I discovered about myself through my mentee experience is that I think of so many ideas and sometimes I struggle with prioritizing. Stella has helped me to work through this and I am now more focused on specific goals and I now plan better. These meetings have offered and continue to offer fulfilling career and life guidance lessons to me.

I have also received extensive training from Na’amal on skills training, mentorship and remote work placement opportunities. Some of the skills include resume writing, LinkedIn profile updates, networking among others. Additionally, I completed the Oyster remote ready course which prepared me for distributed work with global companies.

The Final Elective

For my final elective course of the program, I chose to do Algorithmic Design and Techniques offered by University of California, San Diego. I took interest in this course because I wanted to grow my experience and knowledge in the field of computer science that I was transitioning into. Unlike the previous courses I had taken, this course could be taken using any programming language of my choice. I decided to use this opportunity to learn a new programming language. After careful consideration, I decided that my second programming language will be C++ and so for over a month I immersed myself into learning the basics of the language. This was initially very difficult for me because C++ was very different from Python that I had gotten used to. However I managed to persevere through being objectively bad at something new and soon I started reaping the rewards. I quickly picked up the language which I then used to complete the course. Through this course, I learnt how to design algorithms, solve computational problems and implement solutions efficiently. I learnt basic algorithmic techniques and ideas for computational problems, which arise in practical applications such as sorting and searching, divide and conquer, greedy algorithms and dynamic programming. This in addition to theories, including: how to sort data and how it helps for searching; how to break a large problem into pieces and solve them recursively; when it makes sense to proceed greedily; how dynamic programming is used in genomic studies among others. I practiced solving computational problems, designing new algorithms, and implementing solutions efficiently which ran in less than a second and along the way I fell in love with the art of algorithmic designing and C++. As part of the Algorithms and Data Structures MicroMasters program, I plan to continue pursuing the next courses in this series to further improve myself as a programmer.

But perhaps more importantly for me beyond learning algorithmic design techniques, this course was my introduction to C++. Through learning C++, I had expanded my knowledge base and was now multilingual in terms of programming languages and very quickly I started experimenting with C which at this point I figured I could already write C code given my experience with C++. I got so inspired by the possibilities learning C++ had opened for me such as embedded systems and as such my aspirations have grown and now I plan on building a self-driving car in the next two years. In the meantime I went ahead to write some Java until I eventually started programming in Javascript, HTML and CSS for web development which is my current endeavour.

Let’s light up the world!

Inspired by the beginnings of MIT ReACT and in response to the MIT SOLVE call to find creative solutions to the problems facing refugees around the world, my MIT ReACT classmates and I teamed up to give it a shot as our final course project. From our entrepreneurship and leadership bootcamp experience, we brainstormed ideas and eventually settled on solving the energy needs problem in refugee settlements. As such, in June 2021 my team and I took a field trip to Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Northern Uganda to assess the energy needs of people living in refugee settlements. We were able to carry out several interviews with the refugee community to gauge the needs of the community and carry out the preliminary feasibility study for our project.

From the direct stakeholder interviews we conducted, we learned that the refugee settlements have limited access to electricity, a trend we see in many such communities globally. Most refugees in these circumstances do not have access to electricity in their households and have limited access to electricity even at community centers, schools, and businesses. Additionally, most of the youth in these communities lack access to employment or skilling opportunities.

We then formed “Nuru Yetu” which consists of myself and fellow MIT ReACT learners.

Our solution provides solar energy kits and the capacity to build these energy generating technologies through project-based curriculum accessible both online and offline to serve communities basic needs. In addition, communities are taught skills which can help them secure employment in technology. Our research shows that most sustainable energy interventions such as distributions of solar lamps in refugee settlements in Uganda and Jordan, have failed to last long due to lack of maintenance. Our solution empowers communities to learn and teach themselves and others to harness their own energy. We do this through a curriculum that guides individuals and communities with expertise on not only building solar panels, but also providing expertise on maintenance of these energy technologies. Like The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and inspired by MIT OpenCourseWare, we want to open knowledge and share energy technologies with the world. In addition, we want to provide these communities with necessary skills to help them secure meaningful employment in technology. Nuru Yetu means “Our Light”; let’s empower communities to own their power.

We’ve since applied to MIT SOLVE with our idea and are currently building our solution and company. The team has started putting together resources for the project and we meet regularly to discuss key action plans and strategies on how to execute in addition to educating ourselves more about the industry and acquiring the necessary skills and identifying potential partnerships for this project. We believe that through digital and offline access to the educational resources (tutorials, videos, and simulations) and basic technological components (solar cells, batteries, wires) to practice and build with, we can create long-term and sustainable positive effects on energy access conditions in refugee communities and improve employability prospects.

Not saying goodbye

Perhaps my greatest experience of the MIT ReACT program has been the amazing and awesome people I have been able to meet throughout the program. I have greatly expanded my network and I am now more confident to participate in a global and cross-cultural world.

They say everything has a beginning and an ending. To me the beginning was writing that application in August 2020. As for the ending? There is no ending!!! MIT ReACT has become a part of my life and a community I identify with. I am MIT ReACT, it is where I will always belong.

Jerry Vance Anguzu

My experience with the MIT ReACT Program was originally published in MIT Open Learning on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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