Countless students at Drexel University have a passion for making a difference, whether it’s through racial equity/justice work, climate advocacy or fighting food insecurity. But what about bridging the digital divide? There are opportunities for that, as well, including through volunteerism, student organizations and work/study co-ops — whether you’re a self-proclaimed “techie” or not.
This cause has only become more important in pandemic times. Andy Stuzman, program director for Civic Technology at the Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies (ExCITe) Center, said Drexel’s involvement in the digital inclusion field is a major reason why he came to the University a decade ago, working in conjunction with the city on various initiatives.
“We knew that Internet access was an issue, so citywide, we were working to open up [computer labs] for people to come access a computer and get Internet access that way, because getting people access in their homes was just so hard. But with the pandemic, we had to flip that on its head,” he said. “So that's why the city of Philadelphia started funding the Digital Navigator program.”
Digital Navigator is a city-funded program that provides call-in helplines to assist Philadelphians in need of technological devices and training. The ExCITe Center is one of three organizations handpicked by the city and the Digital Literacy Alliance (DLA) that has helped provide these services since the summer of 2020. At that time, Stuzman enlisted the help of co-op students working remotely to set up a “warm” Google Voice call-in line. Those in need could call in, leave a message, and hear back from these co-ops, work-study students or volunteers.
Digital Navigator is now in its second year of funding, and Stuzman said that they’ve been able to extend the program’s outreach due to student support. In addition to the call-in line, Digital Navigator representatives also assist with in-person digital skills training at various locations in the city, including at the Beachell Family Learning Center at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. They have also been able to refurbish more than 200 donated computers and distribute them back into the community to people in need.
Students like Serenity Baruzzini, a second-year engineering major and the civic technology co-op for the ExCITe Center this past fall/winter cycle, has seen the impact of these efforts firsthand. Though she had never worked closely on computers or hardware before taking this co-op position, she can now say that a day’s work allows for more than a dozen machines to make their way into the hands of those who need them most.
“When people ask me what I do for co-op, I'm really excited to tell them,” she said. “I think a lot of the other engineering students go for the more corporate co-ops. They often help design one piece, and that’s what they do for six months, and I get to come to work and do something different every day. … I feel like I have some ability to fix things and also being able to see how productive I'm being is nice.”
Stuzman said that they may not have the time or the knowledge to refurbish some of the donated equipment through the ExCITe Center. In these cases, they have another Drexel resource to lean one — and one which students are also welcome to get involved in.
TechServ is a student organization which has been helping to bridge the digital divide for over 20 years. They do so by refurbishing donated computers and providing free technical support to the community. Tim Ryer, a third-year and software engineering major and the current president of TechServ, said he’s always been tinkering with computers, and has enjoyed getting involved with the organization in order to share his knowledge and help others.
“A lot of times people will come in here with next to no computer knowledge, and that's great because we can all share,” he said. “Part of the fun and actually doing all these repairs is teaching others how to do it so there's more people who really get to know how the computer parts work on a fundamental level.”
Ryer said he believes a lot of undergraduate students could help make the same impact he has made by getting involved with organizations like TechServ or Digital Navigator.
“It doesn't have to be like someone who spent 20 years in the industry and spends all their time doing it. … You don't have to have much knowledge, but if you spend a little bit of time, you could make a lot of impact on the general community,” he said. “A lot of the questions that people have, to us is like second nature. But to them, they have no idea how to even get started with some of this stuff. So, it's easy to tell just how much you’re helping them for just that short amount of time [you contribute].”
This ability to make an impact is one of the main reasons Stuzman thinks students enjoy getting involved with the Digital Navigator program.
“You're actually seeing the difference you're making, that's one thing about this job I think is really interesting,” he said. “Even if you're just talking to people on the phone and helping them with a technical issue, you know that you're helping somebody. So I think that is just a great experience for students to get.”
To find out how to get involved with Digital Navigator, sign up through the Lindy Center to become a representative, or email [email protected] for more information.