Name: Rita Orji
Job title: Professor of computer science, Dalhousie University
From: Owelli-Court, Enugu State, Nigeria
Currently lives in: Halifax
Education: BSc in computer science, Nnamdi Azikiwe University; Master’s in information systems, Middle East Technical University; PhD in computer science, University of Saskatchewan
First job out of school: Post-doctoral fellowships at McGill, Yale and Waterloo
Without ever having touched a computer, Rita Orji was accepted into the computer science program at Nnamdi Azikiwe University. Even as a child in Owelli-Court, a rural community without electricity, she’d wanted to be a professor. Math was her passion from a young age, and she’d landed on computer science because “I’m the type of person who likes to make and figure out things,” she says. “I wanted a career that would give me some flexibility to create, to do things out of routine and with fewer boundaries.” And, as the first woman from her community of about 50,000 to get a PhD, “out of routine” is exactly how she has done things so far.
In Orji’s hometown, it used to be that marriage was the number one priority for girls after finishing high school—or after their first degree at the latest—and families hoped their daughters would marry wealthy men who would help lift them out of poverty. So once she got to class, she was one of the only women, and it was hard not to feel out of place. The stakes were high too since she was there on a scholarship. What kept her going was sheer willpower, optimism, skill and determination. By the end of her first year, she was in the top 1% of her class.
Though she saw some women profs around her, which validated her dreams, she was aiming even higher with the goal of being a professor of international repute. She went overseas to Turkey for grad school on another scholarship and, eventually, landed at the University of Saskatchewan for her PhD.
Orji knows she’s making a positive impact. “Being in my position, I think I create opportunities for diversity,” she says. “I’m young, I’m Black, I come from a disadvantaged background and I’m successful to an extent. Seeing me and working with me is a big motivation for [minority students] to succeed.” Over half the grad students she works with are minorities, and she actively tries to promote initiatives that will bring more women and minorities into computing.
Placing women in strategic, visible STEM positions will make a huge difference over time, she says. She hopes equal representation will come eventually, but until then she’s blazing this trail the same way she’s blazed so many others. “I don’t want to be a professor that conforms—I want to do it as myself so that people who are like me will see themselves in me and know that STEM is for everybody.”