Dr. Rita Orji brings the lessons of her childhood to her inspiring career in computer science

By Lu Xu
Photo Michael Hall

Rita Orji is the first woman from her town in Nigeria to complete a PhD. “One of the challenges I faced was that I really had no role models. I had to figure out many things on my own, which means a lot of trial and error and breaking away from the norms,” she explains. Now Orji wants to be a role model for millions of girls and women studying and working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), especially those with a “diverse background.”

Today, Orji is a computer science professor at Dalhousie University. In May, she received the Women Leaders in the Digital Economy Award, one of Digital Nova Scotia’s prestigious Digital Diversity Awards, in recognition of her leadership in STEM both within and outside the academic environment.

Orji was born and raised in Owelli, a town of roughly 50,000 people in Enugu State in Nigeria. Her parents had no formal education, and neither can read or write. When Orji was admitted to the computer science program at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria, she hadn’t even used a computer before. Despite that, she surprised everyone by coming in at the top of her class with a near-perfect GPA and first class honours. She went on to become the only Black student in her class at Middle East Technical University in Turkey, where she completed a master’s degree in information systems in 2009. Orji came to Canada as a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan in 2010.

The journey to success is never easy. There were times when Orji wasn’t even sure if she had enough money to go to university. “My parents didn’t have any form of education and we survived on a very tight budget,” she explains. Fortunately, Orji received a lot of help from her family and other people in her community because of her intelligence and hard work. She was also able to see the challenge as an opportunity to make changes.

“What’s interesting is that those things really made me super focused,” Orji says. She was determined to become a professor and to achieve academic excellence, and her outstanding academic performance attracted many scholarships that helped make this dream a reality.

As young and accomplished as Orji is, she doesn’t let her achievements go to her head. She explains that acting “entitled” makes her feel uncomfortable. “I dress like me wherever I go. This is Rita,” Orji says with a smile as she sits casually in her plaid shirt.

Orji says that at award events and invited speeches, people often assume she’s “just a student”; their jaws drop when she walks up to receive an award or give a talk. “They can’t believe it,” she laughs. “It just makes it more fun for me because I know they are going to be surprised at the end of the day.”

“I actually prefer that you have no expectations of me and then I come and surprise you.”

Orji’s current research concentrates on human-computer interaction. She says the reason she chose to focus on this particular subject is that she’s a “people person.”

“I like interacting with and helping people. One of the good things about computer science is that it creates opportunities for me to do what I love doing.” Her research allows her to study and actually solve people’s “day-to-day problems,” including helping people with health issues. One focus of her research is Persuasive Technology, an interactive system designed to aid and motivate people to adopt a healthier lifestyle through behaviours that are beneficial to them and their community.

From an early age, Orji demonstrated exceptional talents, especially in mathematics. At 13, she was selected to participate in the Nigeria-wide Mathematical Olympiad. As a result, instead of choosing the expected major in medicine, Orji felt her talent could be better used in computer science, which involves a lot of logic and math.

Her identity as a woman and a visual minority never stopped her from achieving great things. She has been recognized many times over for her contributions to computer science, and STEM in general. In addition to her Digital Diversity Award, she was named one of the Top 150 Canadian Women in STEM by hEr VOLUTION; one of the Top 50 Young Most Influential Best Brains in Enugu State, Nigeria; and was invited to speak to the Canadian Parliament and at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Panel.

“Your colour doesn’t really matter,” Orji says. “I got to a level where I had to tell myself that it’s not about where I come from but where I’m going. It doesn’t matter that my parents aren’t educated. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t have a lot of money, I can achieve anything I focus my mind on.”

According to Orji, she owes her positive mindset to her parents. As a girl growing up in a patriarchal society, Orji was fortunate to be given the same opportunities as her brothers. “In my house, we don’t do anything because we are boys or girls. We only share duties based on our ages.”

“Inclusion and diversity are a default.”

Orji said her upbringing laid the foundation for her self-confidence as a human being. “My parents didn’t go to school, but somehow they figured out that education and gender equality are essential.”

This July marks Orji’s first anniversary of being a professor, a job she describes as her “childhood dream.” She hopes her story encourages more women of colour to pursue careers in computer science and STEM, and to achieve their dreams.

Orji pioneered a not-for-profit organization called Education for Women and the Less Privileged in Nigeria. It started as an informal campaign when she was still a student in Nigeria in 2002, and now provides both mentorship and financial supports to women who are struggling with their education.

“I often hear people say, ‘You did well because you are the first one to do this.’ But I don’t think that’s enough. I’m not looking to be the only or the first to do a lot of things. I want to see more people like me do great things.”

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