When Solomon Assefa arrived at MIT as a 17-year-old from Ethiopia seven years ago, he barely knew the difference between a bit and a byte. He also had barely heard of MIT. “I wasn’t too aware of MIT’s status or how good a school it was until I was admitted,” says Assefa, the youngest of seven children of a lower-middle class, Addis Ababa family. Assefa has since received his BS in physics and EECS (2000), his masters in EECS (2001), and is slated to graduate this spring with his Ph.D. in EECS.

With all the prodigious computer and electrical engineering knowledge he’s mastered in the past half dozen years, Assefa says he may have learned more from his involvement in the MIT-Africa Internet Technology Initiative (AITI), a student-run program he co-founded in 2000. The program, which sends MIT students to teach Internet skills to African students and teachers, emphasizes intensive classroom teaching while incorporating community projects and entrepreneurship seminars into its curriculum. “MIT-AITI has taught me how to come up with an idea and initiate it, how to organize; how to create contacts and interact with professors and foundations, how to write proposals,” says Assefa, adding that “because we’re student run, we’re very dynamic and colorful. MIT students are so resourceful and brilliant, they’re always coming up with new ideas.”

Conceived in 1999 by former MIT graduate student Paul Njoroge (SB 2000), the program has sent a total of 30 MIT students to Kenya, Ethiopia, and Ghana over the past five years and reached about 500 students and 30 teachers in Africa. For a six-week period in the summer, MIT students give morning lectures in JAVA, ASP.NET and LINUX, the free, open-source system, and in the afternoon, run lab sessions with their African peers. Last year, when the U.S. State Department deemed Kenya a security risk, the program continued through transatlantic phone calls, emails, CDs and books, following the MIT Open Courseware — or self-learning — model. The African students worked on problem sets in their college labs in Nairobi and three MIT students sat at their computers in Cambridge, answering questions emailed to them.

CREATING WEB SITES

To add dimension and meaning to problem sets and technological problem-solving, the African students apply their skills to creating Web sites for local community programs, such as the Kenya Wildlife Organization and AIDS prevention groups. The initiative also offers workshops on how to apply to U.S. colleges and popular entrepreneurship seminars presented by local entrepreneurs. Also on the drawing board is a plan to create business plan competitions.

MIT-AITI took shape after co-founders Njoroge, Assefa and Martin Mbaya attended MIT’s LeaderShape program, a week-long leadership camp. The project, both in its conceptual stage and later, in implementation, got a monumental assist from President emeritus Paul Gray, who mentored Njoroge, Assefa and other group members and supported the project financially. “I’ve stayed involved [over the years],” says Gray, “because I’ve admired the energy, passion and determination of the students who have organized, staffed and continuously improved the activities of AITI, which have greatly enhanced the computer and Internet capabilities of many in Africa.” Says Assefa of his involvement with Gray: “He dispelled the myth that it’s tough to work with the ‘big guys’ at MIT. Getting initial support from a person like him gave us the courage to start the program.”

The project’s impact has been both profound and global, he adds. MIT students learn leadership and a gamut of skills, ranging from selecting applicants — more than 100 apply, only 15 are accepted — to fundraising, publicity, logistics, and program evaluation. Beyond that, says Assefa, the MIT students broaden their cultural awareness. “MIT students learn a new culture and about the hospitality of African people. They get transformed about how they see their own life. I think it gives them more purpose in their lives.” More than 90 percent who get involved in the program remain involved after their return to the States, he notes.

AFRICANS LAND JOBS

On the African side, students have attained jobs in the local IT industry, connected with local IT leaders, become involved in local community projects, raised their sights about their educational potential and linked to American universities. Additionally, says Assefa, by equipping African teachers with cutting-edge knowledge, MIT-AITI also has improved the educational quality of African schools and motivated African universities to connect with U.S. universities about how to access and use up-to-date technology.

For Assefa personally, the program has nurtured a sense of contributing to the MIT community. It also has channeled his thoughts of the future. “I really believe that Africa can be changed by its students. But they need to know they can change the future. I know what they lack, how deprived they are — I’ve been in that position and know their potential. I hope to see an Africa where technology will change lives and reverse the brain drain. That’s how I’d like to play a role…doing something that will change life in Africa.”

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