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Bridging the Digital Divide: a RYSA success story

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As the world becomes more mobile, technology-driven, and modern, access to digital devices, networks, and programs is often taken for granted. Yet, 2020 and even 2021 under the COVID pandemic unveiled how not all communities can truly lean in and rely on technology when needed the most. The digital divide is an all-encompassing problem affecting underserved communities’ ability to navigate inequitable or limited digital spaces.  

The IRC in NJ has seen several challenges posed by the COVID pandemic that have affected program design and client communication. These challenges became heightened, making the digital divide more evident than before.  

This summer, Mr.Shawn Gross generously provided the Education & Learning Unit at the IRC in NJ with 5,000 educational Office 365 accounts. A portion of these accounts was used by students in the Refugee Youth Summer Academy (RYSA) classroom. Mr.Gross leads the workaround Digital Equity at Digital Millennial Consulting. His background lies in teaching digital training support and piloting digital access programs in the United States and internationally.  

The IRC in NJ sat with Mr.Gross to learn of ways in which digital equity can be problem solved. His three recommendations are identifying needs, securing digital resources, and spearheading responsive technological training.  

He explains: “For one, the biggest challenge is identifying the digital needs of underserved youth.”  

Many students and their families, especially refugee and immigrant communities, often face linguistic barriers or digital knowledge gaps such as setting up an account, troubleshooting, connecting to Wi-Fi or navigating device functions. Overcoming digital literacy starts with putting these barriers at the center of staff training... 

“That means more stable classrooms and more informed families.”  

The second challenge is making sure every student in a family household has access to a device and individualized program accounts without sacrificing their right to privacy.  

Access to educational licenses through Microsoft TEAMS and Office 365 has brought relief and joy to our youth clients and their families.

A screenshot of a virtual classroom with eight students featured. The panel is divided into 9 boxes. One box shows the teacher, the other eight boxes are of students. The usernames of the students are also blocked.
Lower School students learning in a virtual classroom. Photo: Education & Learning Unit. IRC in NJ

It has also relieved instructors, giving them time to focus on the curriculum and students’ learning development. The Education & Learning Unit at IRC in NJ anticipated these challenges would play a role in preparing for RYSA. With the support of Mr. Gross and his digital contribution, RYSA 2021 students could stay well-connected in their virtual classrooms.   

The IRC in NJ is thankful for Mr. Shawn Gross’ philanthropic contribution and advocacy, which significantly helped RYSA students meet their learning goals this summer. As we continue to make education more accessible to our learners, the IRC in NJ is motivated to identify ways to make learning adaptable, accessible, and sustainable! 

Mr.Shawn Gross is willing to provide additional pro bono assistance to the IRC as he firmly believes in its mission.