Midtown Raleigh News

Low-income students become ‘digital connectors’ for their neighborhoods

The city’s effort to bring technology to its residents lacking Internet connection has some new allies: students.

The free Digital Connectors program allows students ages 14 to 21 from low-income households to receive in-depth computer training while also taking classes on entrepreneurship, healthy living and career and character development.

“We’re teaching them 21st century skills they may not get otherwise,” program manager Linda Jones said.

During the program at the Saint Monica Teen Center learning lab on Tarboro Street near downtown, students learn to use computers as well as take them apart and refurbish them for families without computer access. They are charged with taking their new knowledge home and spreading it to family members and friends.

Students can apply to openings advertised on the city website, RaleighNC.gov. The program is scheduled to run through May.

The program’s corporate partners, AT&T Pioneers, Cisco, MCNC, Microsoft and SAS, also send in professionals for talks about education and career. Cisco also donated equipment to the learning lab to facilitate the program. Student mentors from St. Augustine’s College and N.C. State and Shaw universities advise participants about campus life and education choices.

By the end of the program, students can network a computer lab, connect wireless access points and create video documentaries. They are required to complete 56 hours of community service as well – Raleigh’s first 60 participants are expected to teach 900 community members how to use computers and the Internet.

“It has helped build their self-confidence...and helped develop a mentality of giving back,” said Gail Roper, Raleigh’s chief information and community relations officer. “The interface with mentors benefits their whole idea of what kind of options they have in life.”

Upon completion, participants receive a $500 stipend toward network engineer certification, as well as a flip camera and a free laptop computer.

The idea is to spread technology education in communities that are handicapped by a lack of access to technological resources and to give students a competitive edge to enter the workforce. More than 3,500 students nationwide have completed the program.

In Raleigh, one student – the first in his family to attend college – has already gone on to earn a certification from Wake Tech Community College, Jones said.

The program is a national curriculum and costs about $80,000 annually, paid for by One Economy through a grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The training started in November and will last through May.

The city plans to continue the program long-term through community partnerships. The hope is to expand the program to include Cisco Essentials training and certification.

“This is a multigenerational approach that allows students to help themselves and teach others how to break down the digital divide,” Jones said.