For almost two months, Shelton Tapley Jr. has been teaching families the skills they need to use the Internet. In the Natomas area of Sacramento, the bio-engineering major at Sacramento City College frequently works with residents of an apartment complex.
"A lot of people would be scared to go into that complex, day or night, because of the way it looks," Tapley said. "But once you get in there, they understand that you care, and they're more inviting."
In a club house called Life Matters, he explains things that we take for granted, like how to save a document or draft an email. One time, he spent two hours with a Latino family of three showing them stuff like how to create a folder on a desktop and how to edit a Word document.
Tapley is half black and Puerto Rican, but his Spanish skills are not where they should be, he says ashamedly. So he uses broken Spanish to communicate, and the parents and high school-age daughter use broken English. They laugh at him, and he laughs because they're laughing.
"They were all laughing like 'this is so nice, this is so great,' and I really enjoyed it," he said. "That family was hilarious."
This spring, many students like Tapley are volunteering in apartment complexes, community centers and homes to help their community become digitally literate.
Through the California Connects program, these 5,800 MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) students receive laptops, broadband access, and digital literacy and Microsoft Office training. Administered by the University of California Office of the President, MESA works with students in K-12 schools, community colleges and four-year universities.
Thirty-three community colleges in the state have MESA programs, which help economically disadvantaged students transfer into calculus-based majors at four-year institutions. By partnering with California Connects, the MESA programs at these community colleges are providing students who don't have a laptop or Internet access with those resources.
In exchange, the students equip new broadband users with the skills to find jobs, education opportunities, and health and finance information online. And they'll also help them figure out how to find information about broadband providers and plans.
"If you don't even know where to go or where to start or what to be aware of, those navigational tools are so powerful," said Elisa Orosco Anders, director of California Connects.
In California, only half of Latinos have broadband access at home compared to 82 percent of whites, according to a 2010 report from the Public Policy Institute of California. And the picture gets worse in four other subgroups.
About 70 percent of U.S.-born Latinos, those who prefer to speak English, and those who make more than $40,000 have broadband at home. But only 45 percent of naturalized Latinos have access. And 25 to 38 percent of noncitizens, those who prefer to speak Spanish, and those who make less than $40,000 have access.
California Connects hopes to change this picture with a $10.9 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The Foundation for California Community Colleges is administering the grant.
While stories about government officials who abuse federal money make the news frequently, this organization is showing how government money is being used for good in communities, Tapley said.
"We need to take advantage of the money that's being provided — which is a large sum — and actually use it for its intended purposes," Tapley said, "and that's to bridge the digital gap between the haves and have-nots."
A number of organizations are working together to give more people access to broadband through this program, including Adobe, American River College, AT&T, California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, Certiport, CollegeBuys, the Great Valley Center at University of California Merced, Hewlett Packard, Insight and Microsoft.
With laptops and training, these community college students immediately impact the families and communities around them.
"At the end of the day, they have a computer," Anders said, "but the skills beyond that — the sense of community, the sense of pride in being a part of a bigger movement to help others — seem to be a resounding immediate benefit."
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