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Teaching Technology 

Hard-Driving students thrive in an Old North End cyber school

click to enlarge JORDAN SILVERMAN

When “ethnic cleansing” swept through Kenya in 1991, it spelled the end of Duncan Nganga’s prosperity. As a Kikuyu raising cows and chickens in a Rift Valley collective, he was among 900 farmers forced to flee with their families from a rampaging rival tribe, the Kelenjin.

“We used to live a good life,” recalls Nganga, an evangelical Christian who compares his difficulties to the biblical story of Job. “They burned my house. We had to move to the city. I sold my pickup truck. Sometimes my kids went to sleep hungry. But I am a believer, and I know God is going to provide.”

If so, one of His initial provisions was to put Nganga — pronounced Nyanya — on the path to computer literacy in Burlington, where he has friends to help him get settled. With the anonymity of an unemployed legal alien awaiting a green card, he must start from scratch at age 47. Eight thousand miles from his wife and three children in Kenya, this stranger in a strange land is trying to decipher the gizmos of the 21st century.

Nganga’s link to a new life is CyberSkills Vermont, a technology center in the Old North End. It’s an educational resource for people in need of work-force training and public access to computers.

“When I came here last year, my first problem was communication,” Nganga explains in a thick accent. “I know the British version of the English language, so maybe I cannot figure out some words you say.”

To help overcome that barrier, Nganga is pursuing a high-school equivalency degree at Community College of Vermont. But in the United States, computer know-how is essential for a career in auto mechanics, which is how the short, solidly built East African supplemented his dairy and poultry earnings until social upheaval sent him scrambling.

At CyberSkills, Nganga qualified for the community scholarship program available to Chittenden County residents — the courses would otherwise cost $165. He is enrolled in courses on computer basics, the Internet and Web page design. Nganga is one of 300 people who benefit each year from such classes held in the upstairs lab; one floor down, the public-access center charges $1 per day for computer use and $2 an hour to go online.

“Duncan understands you have to practice,” observes Hez Obermark, an Americorps/VISTA volunteer at CyberSkills. “He really puts in the time.”

On a recent March afternoon, the bespectacled Nganga is tapping away at the keys of a computer on the first floor of the pink, utilitarian CyberSkills building across the street from the Onion River Food Co-op. “In Kenya, I did not know typing. I finished high school as a qualified technician in auto mechanics, but we wrote everything manually,” he says, adding thoughtfully, “It’s very interesting to use a mouse.”

Barbara Marsh of Essex Junction, who plans to attend a few CyberSkills classes next month, is excited that Russia will be a mere mouse-click away. A seasonal “interpreter” at the Shelburne Museum for 19 years, she wants to surf the ’net to explore the magnificent art treasures at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and other museums.

“My husband is a surveyor who uses our computer to bill his clients,” says the 68-year-old Marsh, a retired elementary school teacher and a technological novice. “But we haven’t gotten into any other practical uses for it.”

CyberSkills is able to accommodate a wide range of needs, from Nganga’s struggle for survival to Marsh’s intellectual — and cultural — curiosity. Founder Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of the Community Media non-profit CCTV, started the organization in 1995 as a way to “build the capacity of this community to compete in the Information Age.”

She was interested in the storefront computer-access centers that had been set up in low-income neighborhoods of New York City’s Harlem and Somerville in Massachusetts. In addition, Davitian was inspired by John O’Hara, a charismatic Canadian living in England who trained long-term unemployed people in an impoverished area to run a computer teaching and access center called CyberSkills.

At first, Davitian coordinated an outreach program that went “wherever there were computers” — Burlington College, the Boys and Girls Club, the Vermont Department of Employment and Training. With a $500,000 grant from Burlington’s Enterprise initiative, she found a home at 279 North Winooski Avenue that opened under the name Old North End Community Technology Center.

It has not been smooth sailing. “The Clavelle administration never really saw cyber technology as an economic opportunity,” Davitian remarks. “We did not have their backing for our vision.”

To overcome some initial hurdles, the company changed strategy. “The implementation of the program was pretty rugged,” Davitian explains. “It’s only in the last two years that we’ve been able to hire a great staff and offer a high level of service.”

Thanks to another grant, from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in 1997 the operation began a partnership with CyberSkills, which by then had spread across Europe. Davitian notes, “We were the first site in the U.S.”

Marketing Director Harold Smith is one of the employees responsible for professionalizing the company. He also writes grants, works on “customized training” for businesses, periodically steps in as a technician and teaches classes in a pinch.

During the afternoon segment of a day-long “Introduction to Microsoft Word” session, Smith constantly peers over the shoulders of six students trying to make sense of the Bill Gates universe. “F4 is the repeat key,” he tells them. “Everybody’s got that idea, right?”

As they experiment with fonts and the paintbrush options on an array of PCs, Smith encourages them. “This is advanced formatting, so you just learned something a lot of people don’t know.”

His approach smacks of the CyberSkills mission, which Smith is adept at articulating. “Our niche is two-fold: It’s hard for people with no computer knowledge to step into a place like Symquest,” he says of the local commercial training facility. “We consider this place a more nurturing environment. For us, it’s not the technology, it’s people. We can help them build self-confidence.”

Self-confidence doesn’t come cheap, of course. “The second thing we do is go look for money,” Smith says. “We try to partner with local social-service agencies for certain programs. If not, we go to our piggy bank, which is funded by philanthropies that help under-served populations.”

Grants from IDX, the Pecor Family Foundation and other sources have made it possible to institute scholarships this year for people who need to improve their job skills but are not eligible for other subsidies. The “customized training” division sends CyberSkills personnel out to small businesses and nonprofit organizations to teach whatever essentials are required. Vermont Law School, Fletcher Allen Health Care, Chittenden Solid Waste District and Vermont C.A.R.E.S. are among the businesses that have taken advantage of this resource.

With an annual budget of $250,000, CyberSkills can’t seem to shake an ongoing financial dilemma, however. “It costs us $50,000 to operate the access center each year, but we only bring in $5000 in fees,” Davitian laments. “We’re still hanging on, but we’ll never break even.” Verizon has contributed $25,000 to the cause.

If Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library opens a computer-access center in the fall, CyberSkills will phase out its own program, leaving the classes and customized training intact. “The library’s in a much better position to subsidize a center,” Davitian says. “And downtown is a good location for that kind of thing.”

Meanwhile, Smith remains optimistic about the CyberSkills mission because he’s seen so many success stories. “We had one unemployed young woman studying here who used computer technology to start her own hairdressing business. Last I knew, she had two employees,” he notes. “Another example is the man who spent a lifetime installing pools until he hurt his back. He mastered one of our design courses and now he designs pools for rich people. The guy’s got a fantastic, creative mind.”

That’s just the kind of Cinderella saga Ragab Mohamed would like to claim as his own through courses at CyberSkills. In his native Egypt, he worked in a bank for 10 years. In 1996 he and his wife Mona moved to Burlington so she could earn a Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Vermont. Mohamed found the opportunities narrowed for a man without computer savvy.

“My kids know computer more than I do from studying it in school,” he says of his four children, ages 3 to 11. “They say, ‘Dad, you are big. Why can’t you help us?’ I have no answer.”

While also improving his linguistic abilities in an English as a Second Language program at The Sara Holbrook Community Center, the 38-year-old Mohamed is clear about the role of technological accomplishments in finding a good job.

“Like all people in Arabic and African countries, I’m dreaming to learn these things,” he says. “Now, thanks to God, I know what that means: the computer.”

Duncan Nganga echoes that sentiment, with a grace note befitting someone who has endured misery but now anticipates a better day through the wonders of cyberspace: “The Bible tells us there is a time for laughing, a time for crying, a time for mourning and a time for being happy. So you don’t know what tomorrow brings.”

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