Like most Wake Forest University students, sophomore Derrick Thompson spends a lot of time online. But he estimates that only a third of the 21 hours he spends online each week involves sending emails to family and friends, maintaining his personal Web site and surfing the Internet. He spends most of his time online working for the technology group he helped found this summer with four other students.
A Lumberton, N.C., native, Thompson helped found the technology group through Wake Forest’s new “Knowledge 2 Work” program. The program helps students from middle- to lower-income families who have strong computer skills earn an hourly wage by performing technical work for local nonprofit groups, corporations and individuals. Within 18 months, program participants are also expected to earn tuition reimbursement of up to 15 percent, said Nancy Crouch, director of technology outreach at Wake Forest.
The other students in the group are senior Jeremy Kindy of Winston-Salem, N.C., sophomore Matthew Heald of Raleigh, N.C., junior Lee Newitt of Norcross, Ga., and sophomore Stuart Bracken of Atlanta.
“We’re taking the most tech-savvy students and helping organize a way for them to maximize the benefits of their skills,” Crouch said. “We’ve designed the program for middle- to lower-income students so that they will have the opportunity to attend Wake Forest and reap the benefits of the technology available here.”
The student-run group is building an interactive, comprehensive Web site for the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem as their first project. Each member spends about 10 hours each week on the project to help meet its early December deadline.
“The best part of Knowledge 2 Work is getting to see the professional outcome of our work,” Thompson said. “We’ve been spending a lot of time working on this, and when we’re done, there will be a great Web page for the community to use. To know that we’re going to have an impact outside our campus community is exciting.”
The group will move on to more diverse tasks next spring after it hires five to 10 additional members. Those students will be hired to perform graphic design, proofreading and coding tasks on an on-call basis as the company takes on new clients.
“We’ve been fielding requests from several companies who are looking for young people to design Web sites, and provide technical feedback about existing sites, and also from individuals who are willing to pay for expert help,” Crouch said. “If the demand for service is any indication of the future of this program, we’re going to achieve all the success we are hoping for.”
Knowledge 2 Work is a natural outgrowth of two other student programs, Crouch said. The university first created the Resident Technology Advisors (RTAs) program when a 1996 technology initiative provided IBM Thinkpad computers to every undergraduate. Twenty RTAs, all undergraduates, were placed in residence halls across campus to provide on-call computer assistance and troubleshooting.
The Student Technology Advisors (STARS) program began the next year, pairing tech-savvy students with faculty members for one semester. The STARS teach the faculty any skills needed to complete projects like building Web sites. Thompson and other members of the group have also been STARS.
The Knowledge 2 Work program takes students a step farther than the other programs, allowing those who demonstrate excellent technical skills and responsibility the opportunity to earn valuable job experience and money toward their education.
“The students are learning how to develop a business plan and carry it through on top of their technical tasks,” Crouch said. “And, as they complete their work while juggling their academic responsibilities, they learn critical time management skills. When these students graduate, the sky will be the limit because they will have gone through experiences that other colleges and universities don’t yet provide.”
Crouch will soon hire a full-time staff member to mentor the students and coordinate summer internships. “To make sure all of the students are on track, we’ll be monitoring their grades,” Crouch said. “Their academic work will remain their first priority.”
Thompson said he feels blessed to have the opportunity to apply the skills he is learning in his business and information systems classes.
“When I talk to my friends who are at other universities, they’re really impressed by what we’re doing in Knowledge 2 Work,” he said. “I feel so blessed to be able to say that at Wake Forest you’re not just taught to do something, you’re given the opportunity to actually do it.”
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