In the spirit of expanding opportunities for girls and women in underdeveloped countries, Melissa Persaud ’08, a community enterprise volunteer with the Peace Corps, helped build a computer lab/multimedia center in Garoua, Cameroon.
Adult women are using the lab to develop computer skills necessary to prepare business plans needed to apply for bank loans and charitable funding to expand their small businesses. High school girls are using it to complete homework and advance their computer knowledge. Six women have been trained to run the center and to teach classes, offered for a small fee.
Persaud, an international affairs and government & law graduate, arrived in Cameroon in summer 2011. Her host organization, Femmes Porteuse d’Espoir (loosely translated as “bearers of hope for women”), brought up the possibility of developing the facility.
“At first, I was hesitant,” says Persaud. “Throughout our training we were reminded that we are capacity builders and trainers, not fundraisers. We are not there to give out money or materials, and I had not had a chance to assess if a computer lab was a priority for Garoua.”
After a year of working with FEPES, Persaud began to see why the center was so important not only for developing technical skills but also for creating materials needed to further develop local businesses. Computer skills could also qualify the women for jobs they might not have been able to consider previously.
In addition, the center would provide girls a way to practice theoretical skills learned in class. “Most high schools have computer classes, but do not have computers for students to use,” she says. “If students learn the keys on the keyboard, but never learn how to type, how would they be able to develop their hands-on abilities?”
Persaud first became interested in international development while studying HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention programs in Sub-Saharan Africa for a research methods course and interning for International Water Association during a study-abroad course in London.
“I was exploring work abroad more and more and by senior year knew that I wanted to work in the international development sector,“ she says.
Finding it difficult to break into the field, Persaud took a job as an unpaid intern for a political consulting firm in New York City, where she quickly progressed to a full-time paid position as a fundraiser for elected officials, political candidates, and nonprofits. She then worked for CFY (formerly Computers for Youth) before being accepted into the Peace Corps, through which she hoped “to gain more hands-on programmatic experience.”
Persaud has helped complete other projects in Cameroon, including an HIV/AIDS awareness and testing campaign, academic and career orientation for high school girls, and several successful grant proposals.
Computer class fees have been used to build a library of school textbooks and establish a fund for computer upgrades.
“The library provides another necessary resource in Garoua,” says Persaud. “Besides lacking computers, the girls face many obstacles. Often, parents choose to send their sons to school rather than daughters. If girls are permitted to attend school, they usually don’t have textbooks or school supplies.”
“The computer lab is more than just a gift,” she adds. “It is a resource that is sustainable and will grow over time.”