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“I have the best job in Washington,” declares Kelley Ellsworth, director of Byte Back. “Every day we’re giving people the tools they need to take advantage of new opportunities.”
At a time when computer skills are all but necessary for both personal and professional advancement, Byte Back is helping to bridge the digital divide for low-income residents of DC by providing instruction in computer and employment readiness skills.
Classes range from absolute beginner – “we really, truly have students who don’t know how to use a mouse,” Kelley said – to CompTia (Computer Technology Industry Association) A+ certification, for students seeking a career in information technology. Full scholarships are available to those with qualifying incomes.
On a Tuesday afternoon, community academy manager Francisco ‘Cisco’ Vasquez teaches a class of about 15 adults, averaging around age 55. He guides the students to the correct folders and begins formatting practice – how to find and replace words, change colors, and adjust font size.
“Look at my screen,” he instructs the students. “Why is the number box blank?”
“Because there are different sizes, so there can’t be just one number,” replies Ifé. She’s an enthusiastic student, responding to a lot of questions.
The participants help one another. Cisco advises a frustrated woman. Some students, Kelley said, enter the program thinking they aren’t marketable, but through Byte Back are able to gain the confidence they need to seek and find a new job.
“I think the most important thing to we do has so little to do with technology or computers,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear ‘I didn’t realize I could learn.’ Once that happens, you’ve changed that person’s life forever.”
At Byte Back, Americorps volunteers serve as instructors and community engagement assistants. Anna Mulamba and Tehmina Mirza enjoy using the skills they’ve acquired to help Byte Back’s clients advance in their studies and careers.
“I have challenging responsibilities that align with my career goals,” said Tehmina, who has a background in social media and an interest in community engagement. She said the biggest challenge can be teaching adults who have insecurities stemming from years of un- or- underemployment. “With children,” she said, “they’re confident with something they’ve never tried, but adults can lack confidence.”
“Trying to get students to believe in themselves is the biggest challenge,” Anna agreed.
But the success stories can be inspiring. Anna recalls a beginner student, a mother of five and a recent immigrant to the U.S., who ended up getting a job just before the class ended.
“Students tell me how learning things from Byte Back has helped them,” said Tehmina. “It’s simple things like‘I can email my grandkids’ or ‘I can look for a job.’
One student, Kelley noted, wrote a letter to Byte Back that read: “Your classes were the trampoline that launched me in a new direction in my life.”
"I learned about the amount of personal involvement it demands. You have to become involved with the people in your classes." - Neil Rickard, former AmeriCorps volunteer, now registrar at Byte Back, on his teaching experience.
"I think we have a really fantastic teacher. He knows his material, and he knows how to impart his material. There are people who are brilliant tech people, but they don't know how to explain anything." - Ifé, Byte Back student, on instructor and Community Academy manager Cisco Vasquez
"It is so dramatic to teach someone who is a recent immigrant how to Skype with their children back home, or to show a diabetic the wide variety of (medical) resources out there." - Kelley Ellsworth, executive director, Byte Back
“She told me over email and in person that I was the reason shehad (been able to get a job). Even a tiny success reminds me why I’m doing this.” – Anna Mulamba, AmeriCorps volunteer, remembering a Byte Back student.
"When I saw Byte Back, I thought it was a way I could use skills I actually have to help people." - Anna Mulamba, computer science major and AmeriCorps volunteer.
"Most students are products of DC public schools. So many students felt they were unsuccessful at school, for all the reasons you can imagine. A lot of our students come to us feeling like they cannot learn, and here we are in an economy where people have to learn constantly." - Kelley Ellsworth, executive director, on the challenges faced at Byte Back.
"I'm trying to develop my administrative skills. I want to make myself more marketable. It's my third day, and (I have) more insight on the multiple ways you can access the features on the Office track." - Debbie, Byte Back student.
"It takes a lot of hard work to get what you really want, but it's not as hard if you really want it." - Amber Koon, via Byte Back Success Stories
Editor's note: Photos are courtesy of Byte Back, and do not correspond with the quotes