Apr. 17 /CSRwire/ - For American Indians, the "digital divide" can feel more like the "digital Grand Canyon." In addition to being the poorest of America’s ethnic minorities, many American Indians live on reservations notorious for their scant natural resources and isolated locations. Many young people attending reservation schools have no access to computers -- not at home, not at school, not even at the library. Those who decide to continue their education at tribal colleges are often faced with out-of-date hardware and software that bear little resemblance to the technology used in today’s workplace. It would be difficult to find a group of people who could benefit more from an infusion of high-tech equipment and training.
"We’re tremendously excited about this latest grant. We know it will take us even closer to closing the digital divide between mainstream society and American Indian country," said Dr. Tom Colonnese, co-manager of the project and assistant vice president for minority affairs, professor and director of the American Indian Studies Center at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash..
This year’s new grantees are Fort Peck Community College, Poplar, Mont.; Little Big Horn College, Crow Agency, Mont.; Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, Albuquerque, N.M.; and White Earth Tribal and Community College, Minn. Grantees carried over from the first two years of the partnership are Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, Kan.; Northwest Indian College, Bellingham, Wash.; Salish Kootenai College, Pablo, Mont.; and Diné College, Tsaile, Ariz. and Shiprock, N.M.
Each college will receive $25,000 in cash plus virtually all the software it can use.
New Mexico Highlands University is not a tribal college, but will receive $60,000 in cash plus software to be used in its role as a mentor and training resource. Representatives from NMHU received their training directly from Microsoft, and now have the ability to certify IT professionals from tribal colleges as both Microsoft System Engineers and Microsoft Certified Trainers.
According to Jose C’ de Baca, project co-manager and executive director of AISTEC, "This grant has given NMHU the wherewithal to develop the professional competency of our staff, which allows us to provide the tribal colleges with a similar experience so that they can, in turn, bring that technical expertise to their communities. As the old saying goes, we’re teaching them how to fish."."
Representatives from the tribal colleges arrive at NMHU for IT "boot camp" with a wide range of skill levels, but the training sessions are designed to ensure success for everyone. "Our belief is that everyone can succeed," C’ de Baca said. "We’re careful to present them with information they’re ready for. That’s why we pre-test, to tailor the training to their individual needs, and then we work with them until they can pass the Microsoft Certification Exam."
The ultimate goal is self-sufficiency. Once there are enough trained information technology professionals working at the tribal colleges, they will be able to offer their own workshops to the community -- an income generating activity that could eliminate the need for donated hardware and software upgrades.
"Unemployment rates for American Indians are horrific -- from 20 percent to the high 80s. Any kind of opportunity that allows people to develop new economic ventures is very important to us," Colonnese said.
In the meantime, the hardware and software donations have greatly enhanced the colleges’ ability to serve their students.
"Upgrading our software had been a big issue in the past," said Jim Ereaux, director of Information Technology and Telecommunications at Salish Kootenai College in Montana. "We knew our students needed training on up-to-date software to get good jobs, but we operate on a shoestring budget. Microsoft gave us everything."
David Fire, who is responsible for making sure more than 400 computers on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus stay up and running, said the software and training grant has made his job a lot easier -- and more interesting: "We’ve been able to implement Windows NT in the dorms, and now have enough licenses to use Office 2000 in all the business classes, computer labs and dorms."
Carla Shafer, an IT professional at Northwest Indian College said the grant allowed the college to set up its first Internet server, making it possible to link up to the World Wide Web. "In Indian country, these are all firsts," Shafer said. "Our students are just trying to catch up."
The program puts a heavy emphasis on measuring results, and, so far, the participants have delivered. "We think we’ve earned Microsoft’s confidence and respect by carefully measuring our progress and being accountable for the outcomes," C' de Baca said. "We use the Microsoft Certification Exam to make sure people are learning what they’re supposed to. We’re also collecting data on how many times people have to take the test before they pass."
The goals for this year’s grant is for 75 percent of the year-two tribal colleges to achieve Microsoft Certified training facility status; that all donated software will be installed at all eight tribal campuses; and that all year-three tribal technical staff will pass two or more portions of the Microsoft Engineer test battery.
AISTEC, NMHU, and the tribal colleges also have another goal: to ensure that this influx of resources stays in the American Indian community. "We’re encouraging people to put their new skills to work on the reservations. This grants helps us nurture an environment where American Indians can succeed within their own communities," said Max Baca, network manager at New Mexico Highlands University.
That goal is already being achieved at Salish Kootenai College. "We have one student, Sam Williams, who got his two-year degree here, went on to the University of Montana for his business degree, and then came back to work with us in the IT department," Ereaux said. "Another student, Michelle Mitchell, completed her AS Information Technology degree here and is now working for us as she works on her BA in business from the University of Montana."
Microsoft’s partnership with AISTEC reflects a broad commitment to putting the power of technology into the hands of American Indians. Microsoft also funds a partnership between The Evergreen State College and the Skokomish Tribe, which uses technology to enhance:
undergraduate education at the tribe’s reservation in Hood Canal, Wash.;
the efforts by the Boys & Girls Club of Las Courtes de Orielles, Wis. to help the Ojiibwe people of northern Wisconsin establish a new technology center;
an initiative to improve access to technology at the Oglalla-Lakota College of Pineridge, S.D., and;
an outreach initiative designed to bring information technology training to the Inuit communities on Alaska’s North Slope, among others.
"Our philosophy is that once American Indians have access to technology, they should be able to do whatever they want with it," said Chris Jones, senior program manager for community affairs at Microsoft. "They can participate in mainstream America, they can use it to preserve their language and heritage, they can communicate with other indigenous communities around the world, they can create e-businesses to sell traditional crafts, they can create virtual partnerships with corporate America -- the list is endless."
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