In Africa, visiting Trojan pursues computer science by day and traditional dance at night
Sabrina Kiamilev studied computer science and learned traditional dance in Botswana, thanks to USC Dornsife’s Council on International Educational Exchange program. Image composite by Matthew Savino.

In Africa, visiting Trojan pursues computer science by day and traditional dance at night

A USC Dornsife program enables undergraduate to explore her twin passions while studying in Botswana.
ByCaitlin Dawson

As an undergraduate, Sabrina Kiamilev found herself either dancing or programming.

Kiamilev, who graduated last month with a degree in computer science from USC Viterbi School of Engineering, pursued both passions in Africa, where, thanks to a program offered by USC Dornsife, she was able to study computer science at the University of Botswana by day and learn traditional Setswana dance by night.

Kiamilev is the first student to travel to Botswana with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) program offered by USC Dornsife, which gives participants the opportunity to live with a host family while studying and exploring the region.

“It’s been a roller coaster, but also a really interesting experience. The culture is beautiful and the food is amazing,” said the Delaware native.

“I’ve been backpacking in Nata, where elephants just roam the highways, which was incredible. Living with a family also opened a new window to the culture. If I stayed in a dorm, I’d still be stuck in my American way of life.”

Cultural roots

Born to a Russian father and Indonesian mother, Kiamilev is no stranger to adventure: During her senior high school year, she lived and studied in Russia with the National Security Language Initiative for Youth.

“I love languages, which is why I like computer science and programming languages. I also see dance as a physical language,” said Kiamilev, who minored in Russian at USC Dornsife’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

While taking electives at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, Kiamilev learned about the cultural and historical roots of hip hop and black dance and formed a “deep fascination” with southern Africa.

It fueled her wanderlust, and when she spotted the CIEE option on the USC Dornsife website, she jumped at the chance to apply. Living in Bostwana through May, she learned the traditional tsutsube dance with a small club.

“It’s very different from other dances of the African diaspora that I’ve encountered since they don’t use drums to keep the rhythm,” she said. 

“It’s very polyrhythmic because you’re singing to one beat and clapping to another beat. It’s so difficult — like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.”

Breaking through

While Kiamilev has been dancing for as long as she can remember —  first ballet and then hip hop — the same didn’t go for computer science.

“When I got to college, I was undecided and my dad suggested I try computer science.” 

At first, she struggled with the unfamiliar concepts, but a talk with her first computer science professor helped shift her perspective. 

“He was so helpful and kind and encouraging and said it just takes practice. That really inspired me to work hard to understand the concepts.”

It paid off, and she helped others to learn as an undergraduate teaching assistant and a tutor for USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project, where she taught computing concepts to inner-city second-graders.

Making connections

Kiamilev has already secured a full-time job as a software engineer with Flatiron Health in New York City, a cancer-focused health-care tech company where she completed an internship in summer 2017.

She met the recruiter on — you guessed it — the dance floor, during a tech networking party at the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of women in computing. After returning from Botswana this month, Kiamilev is off to Indonesia to visit her mother’s family before starting her new job in the Big Apple this fall.

“I would not have been so excited to dance if it hadn’t been for my experience at USC, and I wouldn’t have been at this computer science conference for women if it hadn’t been for my education,” she said.

 “I think the intersection of amazing computer science education and amazing dance education is something very specific to USC and has significantly shaped who I am and where I’m heading. I’m so grateful for this whole experience.”