America Strong: An immigrant-founded nonprofit provides laptops and tech to students in need

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This report is part of “America Strong,” an ABC News series highlighting stories of strength and resilience across the country.

It’s not easy to do your homework on an old laptop with a bad internet connection.

Just ask Sabina Rodriguez, who spent her junior and senior years in e-learning courses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Her parents were both unemployed and could not afford to buy new devices.

“I was literally on the oldest computer in the world,” Rodriguez said. Her mother is a Colombian immigrant who previously worked as a housekeeper. Her father grew up in a low income family and was a driver for a living.

“As a minority, especially in a financial situation, school was like our only way to be successful,” she said. “Our parents came here so that we could go to school.

It was then that she discovered First Tech Fund, a new nonprofit dedicated to “bridging the digital divide” among underserved high school students in New York City.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the growing digital divide between students from different economic backgrounds. According to the National Education Association, about 25% of all school-aged children in the United States live without sufficient technology or without access to Wi-Fi at home.

It’s a situation that First Tech Fund co-founder Josue De Paz was familiar with, and when the pandemic forced children to leave school and return home, it was a need he was determined to address. help solve.

The association offers high school students a one-year scholarship during which they have a laptop computer and a Wi-Fi hotspot, with unlimited Internet access. They are also matched with a mentor and receive weekly virtual workshops on digital skills, career growth and other professional development opportunities.

“I will never be able to reimburse them for the situation I find myself in right now,” Rodriguez said. She said she spent hours on Zoom calls with mentors and professionals who helped her edit her resume, college essays and more.

In New York City, 14% of students did not have a computer or computing device, and 13% did not have adequate Internet access, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York State Education Department.

The NYSE report showed how students in black and Latino school districts suffered disproportionately during the pandemic: compared to students in largely white districts, they were about four times more likely not to have internet access and three times more likely to not have a device that allows them to complete schoolwork.

De Paz said some students do homework from phones or share devices with siblings, making it much more difficult to complete homework, let alone excellence among peers. First Tech Fund targets these marginalized communities.

Rodriguez said students felt more encouraged and supported throughout the school year, especially those on their way to college. One of 52 students chosen from 743 applicants in the first cohort of fellows, Rodriguez is now a freshman at Fordham University, pursuing a career in psychology and medicine.

Some 23 of the 24 college-eligible students in this 2020-2021 cohort are now enrolled in a two- or four-year institution.

During this coming school year, outreach has been extended to 86 students out of around 200 applicants. De Paz thanked donors, partner organizations and elected officials for helping him help so many people.

“There is more power in the community than we often realize,” said De Paz. “We should take advantage of it – now more than ever – when people need that support.”

De Paz, a DACA recipient, left Mexico for the United States at the age of 5. He thanks his mother for working long hours at multiple jobs to provide him with a personal laptop and dial-up Internet connection.

“I saw my mom doing two or three jobs for me to get this access, and then I really saw how it impacted my entire educational career,” De Paz said. “Even before I had a bed, my mom would tell me, ‘You’re going to have a desk, and you’re going to have a computer,’ so I slept on the floor, but I still had what I needed for the school .”

De Paz pays this gratitude to help students like Rodriguez.

“I always had financial difficulties, growing up,” she said, “so the fact that Josue, another Hispanic who grew up in the same situation, that he actually had the courage to love either like, “I’m going to help, I’m going to give back” … it really comes from, like, from her heart. “

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