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Syracuse iSchool launches free IT academy for city residents

It is easy to forget on a large campus like Syracuse University that Internet access is a privilege in many parts of this country, not a right.

Syracuse University has more than 1,000 computers located in its 12 full computer labs and 10 e-mail stations located across campus. However, less than two miles from campus, residents of a six-block area of South Salina Street share eight computers in a small computer cluster in the Beauchamp Branch Library. The digital divide is evident.

“If you go to the South Side, apart from the library, there is no other place that people can get access to computers,” says Murali Venkatesh, associate professor at SU’s School of Information Studies. “We take these things for granted. We can’t even image going for a day without Internet access. However, here is this area that is a stone’s throw from campus where that simply isn’t the case.”

Residents of the South Side also recognized this disparity, and in 2005 they expressed concern about the lack of technology skills and resources in their neighborhood to the South Side Initiative. Created in 2005, the South Side Initiative is a partnership between Syracuse University and the Southside Community Coalition, a group of Southside residents and business owners who aim to create change in the community.

Venkatesh was approached by the South Side Initiative to implement a program that would address the need for IT training and access for residents in this neighborhood. The program became known as the Salina Networking Academy.

Through the Salina Networking Academy, 11 adult students from the community are enrolled in the PC Technical Support Program at the iSchool’s Center for Business Information Technologies (CBIT). The students are learning about basic computer troubleshooting, repair, and maintenance; basic networking skills; customer service; and communication skills. The first set of classes, being held on SU’s campus, started in October and runs through March. Another set of classes for this program will begin in April.

The South Side Initiative office and CBIT provided outreach information and recruiting sessions at three locations on the Southside and helped students from the Southside obtain funding for the classes. CBIT will also assist Salina Networking Academy graduates with obtaining IT jobs in local companies, says Jim Shea, CBIT’s director.

“This is a huge step, and everybody involved in this project worked really hard for an extremely long time to make this happen,” Venkatesh says. “There were a lot of frustrations along the way, but it is great to see the first cohort take off.”

Linda Littlejohn, SU associate vice president with the South Side Initiative, says the academy is successful because it’s meeting a true need in the community. “The Networking Academy was a direct result of the community’s acknowledgement that there really is a need for residents of the south side to get up to speed with issues related to technology,” she says. “We want the community to feel comfortable with computer technology issues.”

The Networking Academy is part of a bigger overall initiative called the Salina Electronic Village. Along with the academy, the Salina Electronic Village consists of two additional interconnecting components, the South Side Technology Center and Salina Connect, a community Internet service provider (ISP) that will provide Internet access in the community. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to create sustainable Internet accessibility and economic growth in the community through the use of information technology.

“We want to be able to go out into the community and make a difference,” Venkatesh says. “We have the resources. Why not take the initiative?”

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