Student Wins Scholarship For Creating Computer Literacy Program

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Crystal Owings was inspired by her mom to apply for the Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship. Her mom needed help to apply to jobs online but hadn’t developed the necessary computer skills to do so.

Owings, a third-year environmental studies and Latin American and Latino Studies major, was awarded the $10,000 scholarship for her proposal to increase computer literacy for Latin@ families in Santa Cruz county. This includes a focus on health care, job preparedness, college applications, scholarships and general use of computers and the Internet.

After working at McDonald’s for about 20 years, Owings said her mom was tired of the labor involved with the job and decided to apply to jobs online.

“I was helping her fill out some applications online — and that’s nothing to me because computers are a critical tool for us in education — and she couldn’t type very fast on her laptop. It hit me deep to see that,” Owings said.

The scholarship, designed to award as many as 15 California college juniors annually, funds public service projects students proposed and will carry out during their senior year. Donald Strauss demonstrated “a strong, life-long commitment to public service and education, reflected in his 10 years of service to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board, and 12 years on the Newport Beach City Council, including one as mayor,” according to College Ten’s website. He also established a summer internship in Washington, D.C. He died in 1995 at age 79.

Two years later, his widow, Dorothy Strauss, created the scholarship as a tribute to Donald and his legacy. In its first year, she invited 10 universities to nominate up to three students each, with the foundation board awarding 10 of those students with $10,000. The scholarship since broadened and now awards 10-15 students per year. Since its inception, the program awarded more than 240 scholarships.

Other members of the UC Santa Cruz community who won the scholarship in the past include UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food System member Tim Galarneau, who used the scholarship to develop the food systems working group, as well as 2011 history department graduate Andrew Whitman, who used the scholarship to work on UCSC’s seed library.

Owings previously worked with the Chicano Latino Foundation’s program “Get Latinos Connected,” which provides subsidized computers and low Internet rates through partnerships with networks such as Comcast. Owings wanted to do something similar but on a local scale.

 “I wanted to apply but I also wanted it to be super meaningful to me if I was going to fill out a project proposal for it, since it’s a super lengthy process,” Owings said.

As of the 2010 census, 32 percent of the Santa Cruz population is Latin@ and 45 percent of Latin@s are not connected to the Internet at home. The project’s mission will be accomplished through a collaboration between the Chicano Latino Foundation and the Beach Flats Community Center (BFCC). The initial $8,000 will go toward providing new computers to the BFCC, as well as working to offer tremendously low costs for computers — somewhere around $50, Owings said.

“One part of the project will be upgrading the computers at BFCC so students who go there after school can use a functioning computer because the computers there are really slow,” Owings said. “The other part is the workshops and events, in which parents will also be encouraged to use the new computers and to attend a workshop I will lead.”

These workshops will focus on building basic skills and knowledge, like identifying the different parts of a computer, typing, emailing and accessing student grades, among other lesson plans. Owings hopes these programs will be self-sustaining and garner help from interested students.

“The scholarship wants to make sure this is a project that can keep going even after my graduation. I need to reach out to campus organizations that can help me with volunteering and get more people involved,” Owings said.

With acquired skills from the workshops and access to low-cost computers, families will be better able to find information addressing the disparities impacting their individual families and communities.

The real work for Owings will come at the beginning of summer when she will need to initiate planning meetings with her partners so by mid-August the workshops will be set and running, Owings said.

“The reason I chose to work with computer literacy and computer access in general is personal. I never thought I would ever be into the subject,” Owings said. “I started wondering how big of an issue this was in general in our country, but you have to localize it to make change.”