As 15 seniors in Queens’ Knight School of Communication prepared recently for capstone presentations on service projects in Mecklenburg County, they realized the experience had been transactional in a way they hadn’t expected. More than the usual give something, get something.
After serving as digital literacy trainers for six weeks with five non-profit community organizations, they learned that beyond being overwhelmingly positive on both sides, the equation was also transformational.
“We were able to learn as much as we taught,” said Regan O’Hara, a communication major from Youngstown, Ohio. “By the end of the class, a lot of the students were writing resumes to get jobs, and one student in particular, Gerald, in the first class he showed us a demo of his music. By the last class he was able to upload that music on the computer and start to edit and work with his music. So that was pretty impactful, that was pretty powerful.”
This kind of service can transform lives, said Dr. Daina Nathaniel, the professor who coached students through the projects as a key component of a semester-long course. At the conclusion of a set of student presentations hosted on Nov. 15, 2018, at Google Fiber’s uptown headquarters, Dr. Nathaniel summarized the long-term intent of the assignment.
“You will go on to change other lives,” she told students. “You will allow other people to change you, and that’s what this experience is about. It cannot be just a checkmark on an assessment at the end of a course.”
Funded by Google Fiber and managed by Digital Charlotte, these projects support community organizations each semester. Called the Program Accelerator, it delivers a six-week digital and media literacy course for community members enrolled through non-profit organizations. At the end of the course, the community residents receive a laptop computer. The five organizations taking part in the fall semester of 2018 were Pineville Neighbors Place, YWCA Central Carolinas, Aldersgate Retirement Community, Beatties Ford Road Vocational Trade Center, and Be the Change / Latin American Coalition. The 2-year-old program has now supported 15 non-profits and graduated more than 125 people. A new round starts in January 2019, and applications from non-profits are being accepted.
“Over the six-week period I’ve learned a lot about how how best to work with adults,” said Jordan Owens, a senior communication major from Bedfordshire, England. “Just because people don’t know how to use a computer doesn’t mean that they’re not smart. It’s just because if you don’t have the access, you don’t know how to use these things. This experience has taught me that patience is key in terms of teaching people new skills. Just because you know something well doesn’t mean that someone else should. Even if it seems like a simple task to you, to someone else, who’s never seen it before, it may be really complex.”
Dr. Timothy Brown, dean of the Knight School, describes the projects as examples of Queens’ motto — “non ministrari sed ministrare,” or, “not to be served, but to serve.”
“What I am impressed with is how the students are really eager to be able to help someone else,” Dr. Brown said. “Realizing that they’re not just in it for themselves, but they want to be able to do something and transform communities. That’s really the first step for students as they go beyond here to be leaders in our own areas, whether it’s the community or other organizations or in their homes, knowing that they’re connected to others and that you can help others. I really see Digital Charlotte doing that.
“Universities cannot see themselves as apart from the community,” he said. “Those days are over. We’re all interconnected. The more we can have a university and its resources and its people engage the community, and be a spark plug for the community, and be a place where we actually take those ideas and say, ‘you know what? Here’s how we can be a good community member. Here’s how we can look at ideas like social mobility and be a player in that and actually help people as they go throughout their life.’ There’s a vital role for universities to do that.”