The Internet as a Window to Education and Volunteer Opportunities
I live in rural Washington state, nearly an hour from the nearest large town. Ten miles away there is a small library – the first straw bale library in the U.S. in fact. They are open only a few hours a day, but they do have a broadband internet connection. My experience with the internet was limited to use at work. The cost of a basic internet connection became a priority to me when my teenage son left home to serve for five months as a page in the U.S. Senate. I couldn’t bear to think of being out of contact with him and I didn’t want to borrow a neighbor’s computer or sit in my car outside a locked building trying to surf off the wireless internet connection that extended into the parking lot; so we had a small wireless dish installed outside our house. That was only three years ago, and during my adjustment to a household now dependent on our wireless connection, I have come to realize how it has opened my world. Three of my children have been able to attend college or other classes on-line. Without the internet, only kids with a car and a family that could afford the 120 miles a day round trip to community college could take advantage of that opportunity. I finally applied to an on-line graduate school, and at the age of almost 50, I am continuing my education. I study information and library science at the University of Washington – one of the best programs in the country and nearly 200 miles away. My studies have given me a different lens for seeing the information needs in my community. As a rural resident who lives among the poorest in my state, I am acutely aware of the digital divide both in terms of technology access and digital literacy skills. Without broadband, I am often unable to access certain lectures, supplied videos or download software needed for a project. I have to drive to “town” to borrow a broadband connection at the gas station or a friend’s house. I now spend as much time volunteering in my community, as I do in my graduate studies. I am helping school libraries reach out to the community to fill gaps left by the public library system. People without a permanent residence, who speak only Spanish or are not U.S. citizens are reluctant to make use of our tiny library. They are comfortable at school, however, and I am helping to open the school after hours so parents can use the library and internet connection there. After a recent unfortunate purge of all non-English books from the schools here, I am using the internet to find grants to augment the school’s multi-cultural and bi-lingual literature to make the library more useful to Spanish speaking mono-lingual parents – over 60% of the population. Using the internet I recently found and wrote a digital literacy grant through the Washington Library Association for the local high school. They received the grant and I have volunteered help them implement digital collaboration, communication and community leadership skills using existing and new technology. The high school is 95% Hispanic and has gone to 100% federal free and reduced lunch status rates because of high poverty rates. My hope is that students who cannot leave their rural environment will become aware of the same possibilities the internet held for me – the ability to reach beyond my isolated community to learn and be able to influence the world around me in ways I would never have known. I have become involved as an on-line volunteer raising awareness of the digital needs of rural populations and the underserved. Most importantly, I found World Pulse on the internet and was suddenly connected with stories of women who overcome significant challenges to use the internet to open their communities and lead women beyond their horizons as well. Hearing their stories motivates me further to look for ways to make the internet a life changing reality for my own community. The technology is here, but women should know how they can use it for more than basic information and entertainment. They need to know they can make a difference for themselves, their children and community by using the vast possibilities offered by the internet.