CU-Boulder undergraduate student Balkarn (Kern) Shahi is taking his knowledge of digital and information systems back to his hometown in Lafayette, Colorado, to help close the “digital divide” and other educational opportunity gaps for low-income students.
According to the 2013 census, one in four Americans does not have internet access at home, and those with the lowest median income rates are most affected. The digital divide problem in Lafayette puts low-income students at a disadvantage, a reality that hit close to home for Kern, who grew up in Lafayette and attended local public schools.
“When I was a senior at Centaurus High School, and people started applying to universities and for scholarships and grants, two of my friends came to my house to use our internet because they didn’t have it,” said Kern. “I was like, ‘Yo, just come over!’ We stayed awake until 1 or 2 in the morning applying to schools, FAFSA and everything. Then I got to CU and realized everyone here has access to the internet. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a serious issue about lack of opportunity and equity.’”
Kern, a junior majoring in information systems and finance and a Puksta Scholar, is strategically focused on bridging the digital divide for elementary school students at Alicia Sanchez Elementary School in Lafayette, a small neighborhood school serving some of the poorest neighborhoods in Boulder County.
“We are focusing our program, ConnectME, on addressing the digital divide at the elementary school level, because it’s one concrete way to help close the achievement gap,” said Kern. “Many of these students have never used a mouse, they don’t know how to work a computer. Their school testing now is all online and this is affecting their scores.”
Eighty-three percent of students at Alicia Sanchez qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 60 percent of students are from the Latino community. Many of these students are at a disadvantage in school because they do not have access to the internet at home.
“Without access to a device or Internet at home, our students are not able to practice at home the skills being presented at school,” said Lora De La Cruz, principal at Alicia Sanchez Elementary. “The digital divide is part of an opportunity gap, a homework gap and a learning gap. In order to close our achievement gap, we need to close our digital divide.”
Many Sanchez students also have older siblings at Centaurus high school, where 110 students – 10 percent – don’t have internet access at home. By focusing on the individual households with kids attending Alicia Sanchez Elementary, Kern believes his program will help high school students, too.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, many educators are pushing for students to use resources on the internet to complete class work and turn in assignments. “The federal government is now grappling with a stark disparity in access to technology, between students who have high-speed Internet at home and an estimated five million families who are without it and who are struggling to keep up,” the article states.
Boulder Valley School District now offers each student a Chromebook to take home and to keep after graduation.
“In Boulder County, devices aren’t an issue, but having internet access is,” said Kern.
Kern’s participation in the Puksta Scholars Program at CU-Boulder has enabled him to devote his time and energy to the ConnectMe project. A program of CU Engage, the Puksta scholarship funds more than a dozen CU Boulder students each year to create and carry out multi-year community engagement projects that address complex public problems.
ConnectME is collaborating with the Boulder Valley School District IT Department, school officials from Alicia Sanchez Elementary, Lafayette City Council Members and internet service providers Comcast and CenturyLink. The Connect ME program – which stands for “Connect My Education” – also receives support from the Sister Carmen Community Center in Lafayette.
“Although we are focused on reaching elementary students at Sanchez, the digital divide is not just an issue for students, it’s also for families,” said Kern. “For example, even applying for health care is now online. But students are the ones getting seriously hurt because their classmates have access and they don’t, which is a big problem contributing to the opportunity gap.”
Kern says he always knew he wanted to go to CU-Boulder, as both of his older sisters are alums.
“But the main reason I’m doing this project is because it hit me close,” he said. “Growing up in Lafayette, lots of my friends had this issue. I look back and think, ‘Wow, I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have internet.’”
By Jennifer Ciplet, CU Engage Manager of Communications
The Road to College as a Puksta Scholar
By: Mawukle Yebuah, Puksta Scholar
My passion for higher education access for black males started when I was a senior in high school. I was making the decision on what college I was going to attend and unfortunately, while this would have seemed like one of the happiest moments of my life, it was actually one of the most disappointing. This was around the same time when I found out that some of my black friends were not going to college and I began to notice all the obstacles that many black students and other minority students face when it comes to attending an institution of higher education. For me, this situation was very hard to understand because I always thought that everyone had the same opportunities when it came to getting a college education. Shortly after that time, I began to feel somewhat disconnected from my friends because I had this feeling that our lives were going in two different directions, and I felt that there was nothing I could do to help them.
Now, when I look at the process that took me to get to college I realize that the scholarship that I received from the Puksta Scholars program is one of the main reasons why I am even in college and specifically at DU. The Puksta program has really helped to give me the tools and the support I needed to really chase my passion and strive to make a difference for many black students. One of the main parts of our Puksta program is our projects and currently my project is working with higher education access for black males. I chose this project because the demographic of black males is a group that I identify myself as and the social justice issue area is one that I can connect to many of the experiences that I have had in my life. During my first year, I really had no idea how to start my project and I learned that if you really want to make change you have to talk to the people who you are trying to help and then you find out what they view as the underline problem. So in my first year, I went to South High School every Friday and I mentored a few of the black males. My experience with these males taught me so much about my issue area and it also taught me that there are so many problems that have to be tackled in order to see the type of change that we are all dreaming about. Another part of my project during my first year came when I got the opportunity to sit on the planning committee for the Black Male Initiative Summit (BMIS).
My involvement with BMIS gave me the chance to come into contact with more black males and it helped me to actually have a part of a program that was specifically geared toward my social justice area. While I learned so many things in that first year with BMIS I also knew that there were a few ways that the program could be expanded and improved. So now, during my second year of college, I have been able to work with BMIS to really expand the program. We have added a second day to the annual summit that is held on DU’s campus and we have begun to develop partner school relationships. By adding the second day to the summit we are now able to teach the students and their family what types of questions they should ask colleges and why it is important to actually visit colleges.
I felt that it was important for us to develop this part of the program because I had noticed that many of the black males that I mentored never actually went to visit the campus that they were going to attend.
DJ Close is one of our Alumni and Advisory Board members. He works with United Way as a Program Manager for their Reading Corps program. They were in the Denver Post for their extreme success that the program is having with children and literacy. Congrats DJ and keep up the great work!
Marco Dorado, a Puksta Scholar at CU, made it into the Colorado Daily. He is an advocate for undocumented students, and is a true inspiration.
“I think the mark I want to leave at CU is for it to be a place of inclusion,” he said. “Before I came to CU, I was just kind of living in the shadows. When I got here — people looked beyond my status. It’s not just about being a place of inclusion for people who are undocumented, but for those who come from all kinds of different backgrounds. I want this to be a place about valuing people for who they are as opposed to judging them for things that are out of their control.”
Bryant Mason, founder of Urban Farms, is one of our Puksta alumni from CU. His project was to help people create sustainable food through personal gardens. He now has evolved that vision into a career. Urban Farms has recently gained a contract with developers in Stapleton to offer homebuyers raised-bed gardens for their front yards or backyards.
Our CSU Puksta Scholars went on a service trip to Nicaragua for 2 weeks. While in Nicaragua, they will be volunteering with Arms of Love Children’s Home and the Center for Development in Central America.
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