From Nigeria to the White House, she's on a mission to create social change through tech.
It's hard to believe, but there are still kids out there who haven't even used the word "technology."
Zainab Oni didn't welcome the word into her vocabulary until ninth grade. She was 12 years old when her family left Laos, Nigeria, and immigrated to New York City, after her mother passed away. She was in search of new opportunities to make a life for herself.
Luckily, she soon discovered something called the Mouse Design League, a unique after-school program that teaches kids how to explore technology in new ways that address pressing social issues.
It was then and there at Hudson High School of Learning that her future began to take shape.
"I didn’t realize how formative those years were at the time — I was just going to this program on Tuesdays," she says today.
But, looking back, she knows: "I really wouldn’t be where I was without Mouse."
"I go to UVA now. And I really wouldn't be here if it weren't for Mouse."Posted by Upworthy on Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Mouse programs go beyond basic technical training and help students to actually understand what it means to build something as part of a team and to improve the lives of people around them. The know-how is one thing, but the "who" and "why" are the parts that make the technology valuable.
Mouse is more than just another STEM outreach program for students. It's a hands-on opportunity to change the world.
"We empower all students to create with technology to solve real problems and make meaningful change in our world," explains Marc Lesser, the senior director of learning and design. "We are committed to creating more diversity in STEM and opening opportunities for students from underserved communities across the country."
For students like Oni, that means spending their after-school hours inventing a wrist-mounted sensor to help people who are blind or visually impaired identify and locate the different foods on their plates, for example.
"Through Mouse, I learned about technology, but also so much more about being a great person," Oni says. "Mouse taught me to think outside of myself and how I could make life better for other people."
"Technology changes completely who we call neighbors, and how we think of extending our passion and empathy for the world around us," says Lesser.
But you can't create technology that improves lives without including all those lives in the conversation.
Mouse is doing what they can to bridge that gap too, since any good engineer knows that you can't solve a problem you don't know how to see.
Sometimes, that can be as literal as representation. As Oni says, "When you see people that are doing it that look like you, it makes you feel that you can do it too."
Black and Latin Americans comprise nearly 30% of the U.S. population — but according to Mouse, they make up less than half of that percentage of the country's computing workforce.
Similarly, women only represent about 12% of the engineering workforce, despite being half the population. But at Mouse? 44% of the students they serve are black or Latin Americans, and 39% of them are women. The vast majority come from low-income households as well.
We can't wait for the future to make a brighter, more equitable world — but we do have to wait a bit as the minds at Mouse engineer the next stage of change right now.
Today, Zainab Oni is a student at University of Virginia. But she was invited to the White House before she even finished high school.
While her studies are focused mainly on political and social thought, the maker skills and hacker intuitions she developed at Mouse are a central part of that, which is why she still volunteers and gives back when she can.
"No matter what I do, I’ll always want to make a difference for people," she says. "Mouse taught me to believe in myself and to create something that will have a lasting impact."
Mouse taught Oni to see the problems and to think outside the box, using her hands-on technical knowledge to find new solutions. Imagine the positive impact it can have if more people learned to engineer a better tomorrow.
You can help support Mouse by joining their network and bringing their projects to your local learning center. All you need to get started can be found here.