GROWING up on the dusty streets of Khomasdal, Dr Anicia Peters (AP) never thought she would one day be known as a woman making waves in the computing industry.
Today, she is the Dean of the Faculty of Computing and Informatics at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST).
Motivated by more than a simple passion for learning, Dr Peters obtained 100 percent for both her PhD and MSc degrees in Human Computer Interaction at the Virtual Reality Applications Centre (VRAC) of the Iowa State University in the United States. Her dissertation was awarded with a Research Excellence Award, as one of the top 10 pieces of research that made a significant contribution in the field. Boeing also awarded her two prizes for her research.
Amongst her list of accolades was being the Google Anita Borg Scholar in the United States in 2012. Dr Peters was also honoured as one of Africa’s top 10 women in technology role models.
In an interview with Confidente’s Marianne Nghidengwa (MN) recently, Dr Peters talked about her career, which includes inspiring young computing students.
MN: Who is Dr Anicia Peters?
AP: I am the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Computing and Informatics at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. A dean is like a school principal. I am a God-fearing born again Christian, and keep God as the central pillar of my existence. I am married to the most amazing man, who relocated with me and our girls to the United States for my studies. I am also a mom to four girls, two of whom we adopted four years ago, and we are guardians to another girl.
MN: Tell us about your upbringing?
AP: I grew up in Khomasdal since I was about eight years old, after being born in Rehoboth. I had six brothers in total, but grew up mainly with my three younger brothers. I went to Origo Primary School in Rehoboth, MH Greeff and then Concordia College, until 1990. I then left for Germany and the Netherlands, before returning to Namibia, where I met my husband.
I was a quiet but stubborn child. I trained and led my own group of drum majorettes at the age of 11, and when I was 14, I organised fashion shows in Khomasdal and was surprised that big clothing stores would lend their clothes for the shows.
My parents had a lot of do with who I am today, as they told me to be a doctor one day; well I guess they meant the other type of doctor (medical), but I became a doctor nonetheless. My father, especially, taught me many things, from cooking to technical stuff, religion and politics, and he pushed me to exceed expectations.
MN: Tell us about your education and career in the computing and informatics field?
AP: I completed my high school at Concordia College in 1990, and then left for Germany and the Netherlands. In Germany, I took my first computer classes and fell in love with computing; we were still working on DOS systems then. When I returned to Namibia, I initially completed a secretarial diploma and worked at a few places, and but my role always involved IT. Then my love for IT took over, and instead of studying for a chartered accountant, as one of my employers wanted me to do, I instead started doing short certification courses in IT, and then enrolled at Polytechnic for studies in IT. I then moved to the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), where I worked as finance officer and gender coordinator. IT formed a big part of my role, but it was not the overall central focus. During this time, I also developed my love for gender work. I edited two books on gender, while at FES, and worked with parliament and the Elected Women’s Forum, while providing gender training to communities across the country. However, IT continued to be my first love, and I longed for a job in software development.
I loved my studies, and excelled. My husband supported me all the way and took care of our young daughter, when I attended evening classes, while also travelling frequently for work purposes. We had an arrangement that we would give each other breaks to study. After completing my first undergraduate degree in business computing at Polytechnic and industry certificates in IT, I took a short break from my studies and had our second daughter. I then started work at the Ministry of Finance as technical manager on the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMS). This was such an amazing experience, as I loved my work. I completed my BTech degree during this time and started on my Master’s degree at Polytechnic. After the successful implementation of the IFMS, my job was done and I moved to NUST as a lecturer. I lectured in the Software Engineering Department, but since I am a certified SAP ERP Trainer, I lectured also in the Business Computing Department on SAP and Project Management. I loved lecturing and told my students that they should dream big, work hard and go work for big giants like NASA, as I felt I was too old to fulfil my dream to develop software for NASA. However, during my time at Ministry of Finance, I developed a deep love for Human Computer Interaction (HCI). In HCI, we study the human and its environment, so that we can design and develop software that adapts to the human and not the other way around. Examples of HCI work include among others Windows, graphical user interfaces, artificial intelligence, big data, social media, and every aspect where you have interaction between a human and a computer. That means that the field is interdisciplinary, with its base disciplines in computer science, design, psychology and sociology. User Experience (UX) is an example of HCI in practice. So, if people are struggling with their software or computers, they should not blame themselves, but rather blame the designer, who did not take the human factors into account. HCI was a new field then, and I find that it is still relatively unknown in Namibia.
Then I received the magnificent award from Fulbright that allowed me to pursue my PhD studies in the US and I left Namibia, along with my family.
MN: What triggered your interest in the field?
AP: A passion for developing solutions to problems around us using technology, the field of computing paid much more than other fields and I realised that technology should be designed to aid humans, and not seen as a replacement.
I did a short IT course in Germany in 1991 and fell in love. The possibilities of what I could do and how I could use technology to solve problems were endless. In the US, I enjoyed being at centre of always developing new cutting-edge technology. I would literally walk around and look for potential new ways in which technology could be used. I had so many mentors, professors, industry practitioners and researchers, to tap from, and who supported me. My PhD professor constantly sent me new ideas and kept me abreast of all the latest breaking news in technology. I also had access to all the latest tech tools and software.
MN: As dean, what are you doing to instil your love of computing in students?
AP: I enable students to have an extraordinary experience, by exposing them to several opportunities within and outside Namibia. I also encourage students to pursue their dreams and never fail to dream, but never forget that it takes dedication and hard work to achieve your dreams. They should do what they love best and work across boundaries of disciplines and academic fields. Furthermore, we have so many international exchange opportunities, where students can go to universities in other countries and where they can learn and experience something different. However, I always stress that they should return to Namibia and help our communities with their skills.
MN: How do courses offered at NUST fulfil the practical expectations of the sector?
AP: Courses at NUST are hands-on, practical courses, with a mandatory work internship attached to it. We listen to the feedback that the industry gives us, so when they complain that our students are not able to do some things that they expect them to know already, we take a look at our curriculum and incorporate it or offer additional training. We also have advisory boards, which consist of experts in industry, to give us input on our course offerings.
As dean, I listen to various companies and organisations, who tell me what they need, and we try to find joint solutions. One advantage is that I know the IT sector in Namibia, as I worked in it, and thus I strive to find solutions to the pains in industry.
Through our vast international partnerships with foreign universities, we also ensure that we provide an internationally recognised and competitive education.
MN: How do you keep up to date with changes in the profession?
AP: Through conferences, applied research, visiting technology expos, publications, university alliances, international tech communities and several tech news sources. We also serve on international committees for research and education, such as journal and conference committees and review boards, international curriculum review bodies, etc.
MN: How do you juggle your roles as a professional and your family life?
AP: I have an amazing husband. We make sure we eat dinner together, whenever I am not engaged in some activity. We play games or watch movies together. I also work at home late at night or on weekends, but we do things together as a family. In previous times, my husband and the little ones would accompany me on some trips, especially during vacation time. That is how my children got to experience Disney World, and cities like Los Angeles, Orlando, New York and Washington DC, but also places in Namibia.
MN: Just what do you do for a little fun?
AP: I play games, whether its board, computer, Xbox, mobile or physical games, with my family, and we also watch movies together. I also love hanging out with my cousins and extended family, whenever the occasion arises. I used to write poetry, but now my oldest daughter loves slam poetry, so she takes me along whenever she attends. We also love road trips and camping. I also love to get involved in social upliftment issues.
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