Resilience and persistence enabled University of Saskatchewan (USask) graduates Rita (PhD'14) and Fidelia Orji (MSc'19) to support their siblings after their parents passed away, while pursuing their academic and research careers.
Though Nigerian-Canadian sisters Fidelia and Rita Orji are experts in their field—persuasive technology in computer science—their family didn’t have a computer when growing up.
“We didn’t even use one before starting to study computer sciences in university,” Rita said.
Both sisters’ academic careers have focused on persuasive technology. Persuasive technology has been used to develop apps that empower people and help them achieve various self-directed changes in behaviours such as increasing physical activity, managing stress and anxiety, and controlling alcohol consumption.
Dr. Rita Orji (PhD’14) is a Canada Research Chair in Persuasive Technology and an associate professor in the Faculty of Computer Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS. She is the founder and director of the Persuasive Computing Lab and a part of the Human-Computer Interaction, Visualization and Graphics Research Cluster.
“We design different types of interactive systems as persuasive technology,” Rita said. “At my Persuasive Computing Lab, you find some of my trainees working on games, while others work on mobile apps, virtual reality, web apps, artificial intelligence (AI) driven applications, or social media applications.”
Most of Rita’s research has been in the area of health and wellness, focusing on physical and mental health and well-being.
“The major thing about our research is the focus on how to design interactive applications to help people to achieve various behaviour change objectives that are important to them,” Rita said. “In terms of the methodology, the key thing is that we employ the user-centred design approach to tailor our applications to be suitable for the target users.”
Her older sister, Fidelia (MSc’19), is currently a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science at the USask College of Arts and Science.
Fidelia’s research also utilizes persuasive technology but focuses on education. Her current research explores improving e-learning systems using machine learning and persuasive technology for better engagement and achievement of intended learning objectives.
The importance of online learning became readily apparent in 2020 when the pandemic caused the majority of learners to switch to online learning environments.
“Now we know that online learning is very important,” Fidelia said. “However, low engagement and high attrition rates are major issues that need to be addressed to improve the effectiveness of the systems in supporting people to achieve their learning goals.”
For online courses that are facilitated without a live instructor, learners are required to self-guide and manage their time.
“My research explores how we can improve e-learning systems so they can encourage more engagement and support people to achieve their learning objectives.”
Growing up in Nigeria
Fidelia and Rita come from a family of nine children.
“We grew up in a community where (the) majority of the people there were low-income earners,” Rita said.
Fidelia was known to be reserved, intelligent and hard-working. Rita was also known to be smart, but more outgoing and vocal.
“People often try to compare me and Fidelia. When they see that I am everywhere and like talking, some people would tell me, ‘Why can’t you take after your sister?’” Rita laughed. “People who knew my sister is very smart often thought that I probably don’t know what I am doing because I don’t behave like my sister—I am not as reserved. However, although we are different in some ways, we share several important virtues, growing up in the same place—such as the value of hard work, perseverance, resilience, and contentment.”
Rita said that she and her siblings “learned how to manage resources to achieve success.”
“We also learned how to use whatever we have in the community to solve problems and help people,” she said. “When you live in such communities to survive, you have to be able to depend on one another, so people learn to help each other. We look out for one another and are selfless.”
Both siblings had a knack for technical subjects like math, and liked figuring things out—like puzzles and radios. Fidelia and Rita were used to helping support the family, at times selling vegetables on the roadside in their community located in Enugu State, in the eastern part of Nigeria, to bring in extra money, or hauling water before and after school. They got used to multitasking, balancing their schoolwork while helping the family with petty trading and farm work.
Fidelia started her academic career at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Nigeria, enrolling in an undergraduate program in computer science.
“Since I’m technically inclined and good at math, I decided to take computer science as a course so that I could help in developing software and technologies that people can use to solve different problems,” Fidelia said.
A year later, Rita enrolled in the same program.
“When I was going into university, Fidelia had a very big influence on me because she was already in computer science,” Rita said.
“Fidelia had set a good pace that left big shoes to fill,” she said. “It wasn’t exactly like we were competing, but it’s more like setting a good example for all the younger ones (siblings) just like me. And I’m hoping the younger ones following me will go higher than myself because they have someone they can look up to.”
While they were enrolled at university, their father passed away. Taking care of their siblings rested with the older siblings and their mother, who also unfortunately passed on a few years later.
Once she completed her bachelor's degree program, Fidelia put her dreams of further education on hold, and decided to enter the workforce to support her younger siblings. She gained perspective while working in the computer software industry.
“I look at my own position in the family as a privileged one because it helped me to learn to be responsible at an early age,” Fidelia said. “It helped me to learn how to settle disputes, how to plan things and set up goals not just for myself but also for other people following me. Because if I’m not achieving or if I make mistakes, it may lead them astray. The important thing is for me to set a good standard. I was conscious of that.”
She also recognized the advantage of getting a job right out of university.
“Work was also a privilege because there are so many graduates that finished their education and didn’t get work. Rita and I were able to start supporting our younger ones right from a very young age,” she said.
Rita finished her undergraduate degree and was accepted into a master’s degree program at USask, but her visa to Canada was denied. Instead she attended a graduate school program at Middle East Technical University located in Turkey with scholarships, where she attended from 2007 to 2009.
“When I got the admission and scholarship for grad school, it was a bit of a dilemma for us because I had also gotten a good job as a software engineer in the industry,” Rita said. “Considering that we had a lot of younger ones who need our support to go to school, and our father had died, there was not much support.”
Rita didn’t expect that she would attend graduate school as the family needed money to support her younger siblings to even attend secondary school.
“We needed money, but my family encouraged me to go—that they would find a way to manage,” Rita said. “Fidelia and my other sisters continued to run the family and to support the younger ones while I contributed the much I can from the stipend I received from my scholarship as a student.
“During my master’s degree, due to the change in environment and school system, things were not as easy as I thought it would be,” she added. “I remember struggling a bit and missing home.”
“However, whenever I spoke to my family, they encouraged me to try my best—that I can do it. I know that people were sacrificing a lot to keep me in graduate school, so I did not have any room for mistakes, so, I did my best and graduated with excellent grades.” said Rita.
Academic excellence at USask
In 2010, after completing her Master of Science degree, Rita secured her visa and was accepted at USask to complete her PhD to fulfill her dream of becoming an internationally renowned computer scientist. As an international student, Rita received the Vanier Graduate Scholarship in 2011 through the federal Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Her research focused on developing a computer app to combat obesity.
The annual award is Canada’s top graduate student award, which recognizes researchers who demonstrate academic excellence, research potential and leadership ability. Rita went on to graduate and eventually take a faculty position at Dalhousie University.
Over the next few years, Fidelia migrated to Canada with her husband and daughter. She enrolled in a graduate program at USask to continue her education with a scholarship.
In 2021, Fidelia also received the Vanier Scholarship as a PhD student for her research in developing e-learning tools to assess learners’ engagement, motivation and frustrations in real-time. Fidelia credits her sister, Rita and her supervisor, computer science professor Dr. Julita Vassileva, for encouraging her to apply for the award.
“I was excited that we shared this achievement, even though sometimes I’m more of a conservative person,” Fidelia said.
“The fact that we both earned the scholarship was evidence of the work ethic and the value of perseverance engrained in us when we were growing up,” Rita said.
Fidelia is continuing to work on earning her PhD at USask. Though they live far apart, the sisters regularly keep in touch. Rita sometimes reaches out to Fidelia for advice—life, work or otherwise.
“Fidelia is very supportive and helpful—no competing spirit between us,” Rita said. “My hope is that she goes higher than myself to succeed, and I think she hopes the same for me. I appreciate lots of things about her. She sets a good standard and she goes out of her way to help and assist others.”
Fidelia echoed her sister’s sentiments. “Rita is smart, intelligent and hardworking. She’s always herself, wherever she is. If she has set out to achieve anything, she will pursue it and persist no matter the obstacle on the way.”
The sisters reflected on their academic and personal journeys to where they are today—and how none of it would be possible without the support of each other.
“People don’t really know how it was,” Rita said. “There was no reason why any of us would get to this level, considering where we came from. The only thing that actually helped us is that we worked together and supported each other.
“When you come from such a big family, we complement each other. Where one is weak, the other is strong.”