Addressing the Digital Divide and College Access through Technology and Mentorship

Feb 01, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed and had a significant impact on the lives in the National Capital Area. It has shut down schools, businesses and workplaces and forced people to stay at home. Technology has been a lifeline for some and a struggle for many, especially for students and their families.

In Maryland:

United Way of the National Capital Area (United Way NCA) is focused on the education pipeline from middle school to college and/or career success. Through our Community Schools program, we are focused on meeting Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) students and families where they’re at.

To help combat the technology and internet disparity in Prince George’s County, United Way NCA and Ernst & Young (EY) partnered to launch the Bridging the Digital Divide initiative in July 2021. The purpose of the program is to serve students and populations through access to devices, broadband internet, and mentoring. “By teaming up with organizations like United Way NCA… [EY is] taking actions to eradicate racism and discrimination by leveraging influence to drive strategic change within our organization and in the communities through our various work,” shares Eugene Kim, program manager for the Bridging the Digital Divide initiative at EY.

The ultimate mission of the program is to help bridge a gap that the pandemic has only exacerbated. “While this disparity existed before COVID, it became glaringly obvious that certain families and students did not have the access to technology that they really need to succeed in our ever more technological society,” shares Abigail Trask, EY program team member for the initiative.

In the program’s first year, 34 Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) high school graduates attending college or university this school year have been awarded brand new laptops, to help reduce barriers to their post-secondary success. Three PGCPS Community Schools are participating in the partnership: International High School at Langley Park, International High School at Largo and High Point High School. To be considered students completed an online application, uploaded their high school transcripts or final report card, and answered three essay questions.

For seniors at the International High School at Langley Park, the lack of a computer makes all the difference in their post-graduation pursuits. With 95% of their student population on free and reduced lunch, most come from low-income families that cannot afford to buy a laptop. While each student gets a loaner Chromebook that they can take home, once they complete high school, they are to return the laptop. “That creates a divide for students who want to pursue college or want to pursue vocational training or want to do some type of training that requires a computer,” shares Delmis Umanzor, the community school coordinator at International High School at Langley Park.

Connectivity and technology aren’t the only pillars of EY and United Way NCA’s work with Prince George County’s students and families. In late 2021, they jointly launched a Pathway to College program designed to take things a step further and support students’ college readiness and success. Pathway to College matches EY volunteer mentors (of all levels, backgrounds, and service lines) with groups of high school students and guides them through a three-part series using EY’s national group-mentoring curriculum, College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence). With the first workshops held in November 2021, the program addresses the hurdles that come with getting to college–preparation, applications, professional development, etc.—and supports students that have a goal and vision for themselves and are working hard to make those visions a reality.

For students who lack support because of their socioeconomic status or are first-generation college students, preparing for college is a process that is difficult to navigate. “They’re already very concerned about just how they are going to do college and understanding what that process is like… these workshops will be that supplemental information that they need to feel more confident to go into that,” shares Tatiana Sandoval, community school coordinator at High Point High School. “Knowing the stories of others that have gone through this before is a huge support and motivator for students – it’s priceless,” adds Sandy Mason, bilingual instructional specialist for the Office of Community Schools at PGCPS.

Both programs have allowed for an intentional partnership between United Way NCA and EY to help identify where resources can be leveraged. “[It’s] been wonderful working with United Way NCA… I don’t think we would’ve gotten the depth of connection that we have with the community without United Way NCA’s help,” explains Trask. While it may not solve the entire issue, EY’s commitment to providing access to computers, internet connectivity and virtual mentoring is helping to chip at the problem and opening the doors so students can thrive in our digital age.

The hope with both programs moving forward is to expand and increase—bringing the opportunity to more students across Prince George’s County, continuing to build strong connections with students, increasing funding for more laptops, connectivity, and networking and determining what will bring the most long-term impact for students and their families.

 

To learn more about United Way NCA’s education work, visit unitedwaynca.org/education

When none are ignored, all will thrive.

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