Nicaraguan immigrant wins digital equity award for exposing minority youth to tech, coding

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Antonio Tijerino knows what it’s like to have his intelligence questioned because he didn’t know English – he immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua with his parents when he was just 6 years old.

Now, he wants to make sure minority youth don’t feel as abandoned as he did in this new digital era.

As president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation for the past 14 years, Tijerino has been dedicated to addressing the issue of the “homework gap.” He has launched projects like the ESA LOFT Video Game Innovation Fellowship and Code as a Second Language, to encourage teenagers and minorities to learn coding skills. For the fellowship, Tijerino flew about 20 high school and college students to the nation’s capital in October to show off apps and video games they had created to solve a problem in their communities.

He has also served on panels at companies like Microsoft, where he said that Latinos “clean hotel rooms” and “serve your food,” but they need to learn coding and computer programming in order to truly move up in society.

His work and dedication to close the digital divide for Hispanic and other minority youth won the attention of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, which awarded him the “Champion of Digital Equality Award” on Jan. 20. The nonprofit promotes civil rights in mass media and broadband industries.

The digital divide is “a new form of inequality that I
think is the same as in other days, when you weren’t allowed to get
educated, or you weren’t allowed to vote and all these other things as a
minority,” Tijerino said in an interview with EdScoop. “I felt a
real sense of satisfaction that someone is noticing the work
that we have been doing in this space – conducting research,
writing op-eds, and also providing a vision and idea for young Latinos and
other minorities.”

Early last year, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation conducted a study to identify where homework gaps exist, together with education company My College Options and nonprofit organization Family Online Safety Institute. About 40 percent of students in the national study reported that lack of Internet access results in failure to complete homework, and it impairs the academic performance of Hispanic and African American students more than white and Asian ones.

After the study was released, Tijerino received a call from Adan Gonzalez, then a college student at Georgetown University. Tijerino recalled that Gonzalez told him, “‘I was just like what you are talking about.’”

Gonzalez didn’t own a laptop at home when he was a senior in high school in Dallas, Texas. He completed his college application on a borrowed laptop, and had to sit on the curb late at night to “hijack” Wi-Fi from a McDonald’s near his home to finish his homework, he said in an interview.

“My family can’t afford the Internet,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t know anyone else who had Internet at home.” Gonzalez’s parents earned less than $40,000 combined to support the family of eight, lower than the median household income in Dallas from 2009 to 2013, which is nearly $50,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau.

Influenced by Tijerino, Gonzalez is now working with Hispanic and African American students to help them obtain higher education. Gonzalez said he is happy and proud that Tijerino was recognized with an award.

“If he can do it, we all can,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what he tries to teach us and that’s what he taught me as a mentor.”

Tijerino said he makes sure that his three children – ages 10, 8 and 5 – are well versed in technology. They use a host of devices, including computers, tablets and smartphones.

“They go crazy when the Internet is down,” Tijerino said, laughing. “Even at a very young age, they’re already extremely dependent on technology.”

Tijerino is now trying to pilot a program to install Wi-Fi routers on buses in Montgomery County in Maryland, so that students will be able to do their homework on buses, or connect their devices to the Internet in certain locations where wired buses are parked. He said communities should make better use of public facilities by providing Wi-Fi hotspots in community centers and libraries.

“I think community centers, before, were places where kids played basketball,” Tijerino said. “I think now it needs to be places where kids can get access to technology and be able to do their homework.”

Reach the reporter at yizhu.wang@edscoop.com and follow her on Twitter @yizhuevy.

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