A Lab of Their Own

Sisters Sehar ’16 and Shaffaq ’18 Noor founded a computer lab that is helping bring the internet to women in rural Pakistan.

Shaffaq Noor ’18 partnered with her sister Sehar ’16 to create a computer lab for women in their parent’s hometown of Gilgit, Pakistan. (Photo by Scott Cook) Shaffaq Noor ’18 partnered with her sister Sehar ’16 to create a computer lab for women in their parent’s hometown of Gilgit, Pakistan. (Photo by Scott Cook)

For any 18-year-old, going online to fill out college registration and financial aid forms can be a complex, time-consuming process. Imagine doing it in northern Pakistan, where electricity—let alone high-speed internet—is often a luxury.

That was the situation that confronted Sehar Noor ’16 when finalizing her acceptance to Rollins College. The Boone High School graduate had lived in the U.S. since 2002, but at this particular juncture she was visiting her parents’ hometown of Gilgit, population 25,000.

“I was having a lot of trouble getting access to the internet and turning in all the paperwork,” says Sehar, an international affairs and economics major at Rollins who now works as a research assistant at Harvard’s Center for International Development. “In Pakistan, internet cafes aren’t accessible to women—it’s not considered appropriate for me to go to those places—so someone would have to drive me to a house where I could get online. It’s very inhibitive.”

The experience stuck with Sehar, and she started talking with her sister, Shaffaq Noor ’18, about ways they could make a difference.

The result is the Shaheen I-Tech Lab, created and funded by the Noor sisters in conjunction with Shaheen Degree College, an all-girls school in Gilgit. Now, students, teachers, and women from the community have their own space to enjoy free access to the internet, as well as courses in word processing and other computer-related skills.

“We thought a school would be a great place to start because they’re the ones writing papers, applying for scholarships, and trying to connect with the outside world,” says Shaffaq, a computer science and environmental studies major who also works in Rollins’ IT department. “We really wanted to keep our efforts focused on where we could make an impact.”

Shaffaq attended the lab’s opening in December 2016. Shaffaq attended the lab’s opening in December 2016.

The lab, which opened in December 2016, includes 10 used desktops and seven laptops the sisters purchased in Pakistan. It only costs $1,000 a year to operate, and a donation link on the website provides partial funding. Eventually, Sehar and Shaffaq hope to open additional labs and provide more services that help girls wanting to attend college in America.

“There’s a trend now of students from our area coming to the U.S.,” Shaffaq says, “and it involves a pretty long application process that includes exams, immunizations, and other forms. Unfortunately, families often have to travel to bigger cities to go online and get this done.”

Kim Dennis, an associate professor of art history, met Shaffaq in 2014 while teaching a course on sexuality, women’s, and gender studies. They’ve maintained a close relationship ever since, with Dennis providing mentorship during the lab’s planning stages.

Shaffaq and Sehar—who grew up working at their parents’ laundromat just a few miles from campus—are “very professional, selfless people who thought through every detail of this project,” Dennis says.  “They’re super-smart, incredibly hardworking women who have one foot in each side of the world.”

Shaffaq Noor (Photo by Scott Cook) Shaffaq Noor (Photo by Scott Cook)

Shaffaq, Dennis continues, is always thinking about the connections between her experiences and the women in her family in Pakistan. She knew she was in a unique position to address a specific problem, and she teamed up with her sister to provide a practical solution.

“It’s an incredible example of global citizenship,” Dennis says. “These sisters recognize the privilege of having an American education, and their first instinct is to share it with others. They’ve been working on this project for years, and they’ve never wavered. You can’t help but be inspired by them.”