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iSchool Makes Strides in Closing Digital Divide

This semester, Syracuse University's School of Information Studies (iSchool) will help launch the South Side Initiative Networking Academy, a program to provide full scholarship for professional computer training to 15 residents on the South Side of Syracuse who would otherwise be unable to afford it. Set to begin in April, the academy is a collaborative effort of Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s South Side Initiative, the iSchool and University College’s Center for Business Information Technologies (CBIT). Other partners include CNY Works, the WorkKeys Center at Syracuse University, and the SUNY Equal Opportunity Center.


“We are helping people who cannot afford an education become productive members of the workforce and improve their wages and standard of living,” says James Shea, director of CBIT. The networking academy will provide its students with industry standard certification and job placement support services, such as interviewing and résumé-writing skills, and direct access to local job opportunities. 


“These are occupations that have enough excitement and complexity and room for growth that they can accommodate your lifetime,” says iSchool Professor Murali Venkatesh, a key coordinator in the networking academy. “There is no ceiling here. You just keep on developing yourself.”


The goal is for every participant to walk away with a Certificate of Workplace Competency from SU after taking a required WorkKeys exam. This certificate, though not computer specific, is a marker to set recipients apart from other applicants in the job hunt.


The iSchool’s involvement in the South Side Networking Academy came about through a meeting in fall 2005, during which Venkatesh pledged his service and commitment to technology projects on the South Side. He then started work on a three-component program for the South Side: an electronic village providing free wireless Internet access, a community-owned and run Internet service provider and technology center and the networking academy. 


South Side residents will not be the only students to benefit from the programs. Undergraduate iSchool students will work with the residents in developing their skills and set up various other wireless projects for the community. “Students typically don’t get access to these kinds of things,” says Venkatesh. “Here, they are faced with problems that pop up in the real world. It’s very different from doing it in a lab.”


In addition to the hands-on educational experience, students will gain a more personal sense of fulfillment from their work in the community, according to Sean Ginevan, a graduate assistant working with Venkatesh. “When you’re working directly with kids and you see their eyes open, that’s special," says Ginevan.


Some eager South Side residents can already visualize their future, imagining how their lives will be different after the networking academy. “I’m trying to get my life on track and further my education,” says Shawntell Rush, a 23-year-old resident who recently signed up for the networking academy. “After I get a career, I see myself trying to reach out to the youth and explain to them that the things they’re going through, I went through, and look at me now.”


The academy is not just for young people like Rush, it will also serve older residents. Venkatesh stressed this openness at a recent information session, and was pleased by the reactions from older adults. “They were all fired up by the possibilities,” says Venkatesh says. “They started dreaming again. That was the most gratifying evening I can remember in my 17 years at SU.”


In harmony with Chancellor Cantor’s vision of Scholarship in Action, Venkatesh sees the iSchool as the perfect place to incorporate community engagement and service into learning. “We have great talent here and we have people who have a lot of needs,” Venkatesh says. “So why not link the two? It’s the best way to learn.”

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