Building Bridges, Saving Lives: A First-Gen Student’s Impact

Written by: Gabe Fink

When she was still in high school, Safa Ghaya, now a senior at Georgia Institute of Technology, was in dual enrollment courses at her local community college and started to notice how technology helps bridge gaps for some students but creates wider gaps for others. 

For example, one of her professors announced that online assignments, worth 20 percent of the course grade, had all been posted in the courseware and were available to complete immediately. Some students completed all the assignments for the semester in the first week, while others spent weeks struggling just to access the technology.

“I understood why the professor did it,” Ghaya says, “but after a week if you didn’t have access to it, that put you at a severe disadvantage. It goes to show how inaccessible courseware is. That story has always stuck with me.”

Now majoring in biomedical engineering and working on a certificate in marketing at Georgia Tech, and recently part of the student intern program at CourseGateway through Every Learner Everywhere, Ghaya is thinking about how healthcare technology and educational technology products can be designed in ways that either reinforce or remove barriers to access.

Different stages, different access

Ghaya has carried some other lessons away from her experience in dual enrollment programs. First, she noticed she had the advantage of a publicly-funded program covering the cost of her tuition and the expensive courseware her classes used, while some of her classmates struggled with those costs.

“I don’t think whether or not you have access to technology should impact how well you do in a course,” she says. “There should be an alternative, because you never know what someone’s situation is. At a community college, you meet people in many different stages of their lives. I’ve even been in classes with people who were just taking it for fun.”

Meanwhile, she had a job in the college’s admissions office, where she witnessed how technology was a barrier to even getting started for some students. “We had a program for people over 62, and I would see it there too, where they need a lot of help just submitting the application,” she says. 

Those experiences later informed Ghaya’s decision to apply for the 2023 summer internship, where she worked with the educators who create the independent courseware reviews there. 

“What truly drives me is recognizing the privilege I have and just wanting to help others,” she says. “That’s why I want to work with CourseGateway on making courseware more affordable and accessible for students.”

First-generation student, first-generation American

Ghaya is a first-generation American and says visiting family in Pakistan has made her reflect further on her privilege. Something as familiar as access to drinking water creates healthcare disparities there.

“Decreasing healthcare disparity is what led me to biomedical engineering,” she says. “There are a lot of countries that simply don’t have the resources we do. That’s something I’m passionate about.”

Engineering to help others isn’t just about working on cutting-edge inventions, Ghaya explains. “When I thought about what I wanted to really do in the field, I discovered that innovation is about asking how we can make things less expensive or more tailored for a specific group of people.”

One methodology Ghaya has learned from the field of biomedical engineering is to study user groups, and she says she is bringing that perspective to her internship at CourseGateway. “You have to look at who you’re targeting the solution for,” she explains. 

Otherwise, used uncritically, the technology continues to bridge gaps for some and increase gaps for others. “You have to recognize that some students have a laptop to do the courseware, but some may just be using their phone, which can put them at a disadvantage,” she says. “Just looking at the user interface for courseware becomes a big part of decreasing disparities.”

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