Second time around: Getting Native American students better connected

New York City (October 26, 2021) – The Digital Divide has become a growing issue over the past several years. It’s certainly a hurdle Andrew Heinrich faced when it came to getting students his organization serves connected—especially on Native American reservations.

Heinrich is the founder and president of Project Rousseau, a nonprofit based in New York City that works with young people in communities with the greatest need. The organization’s mission is to help its students reach their full potential and excel through higher education. 

“Stopping the Digital Divide and being able to connect students in and out of the classroom has grown to become a major issue not just for Project Rousseau, but for many students across the country,” Heinrich said.

The organization provides holistic services, including mentoring and social services, academic programming and community service opportunities. It also offers “broadening horizons” programs that are designed to introduce students to new people and ideas and expose them to the larger world.

This thriving nonprofit relies on internet connectivity for communication with its students, staff, and mentors. Like many other organizations, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, Project Rousseau had to use online communication as its main source of interaction. 

“Lack of internet access was a critical problem right at the start of the pandemic,” Heinrich said. Project Rousseau could not communicate with students about basic needs, and sometimes could not locate students in particularly rural locations. Project Rousseau’s team was often only able to reach students when they were in their school buildings.

What high-speed internet means for student success

High-speed internet is critical for our students to get a good education. Ultimately, education is what creates the social mobility that we aim to have our students achieve,” said Heinrich. He added that, beyond social mobility, students gain a “sense of self, fulfillment, and an ability to find joy in life, which all come through education in different ways.”

For students in Project Rousseau, getting access to a good education is not always easy. That’s why the organization’s leaders and mentors use all of their resources and skills to help them reach this goal. Even before the pandemic, connection to the internet was a core component of education. Unfortunately, not all students have that access, and a lack of access creates barriers. 

High-speed internet is not only used for educational purposes, but also to connect students with other essential resources.

One of the most important elements of Project Rousseau’s programming is Student Needs, said Heinrich. Project Rousseau often refers students to professional services, who all communicate through the internet.      

For example, “It is imperative for our students to communicate with mental health providers and health providers,” said Heinrich. These communications nearly always take place using the internet. It is essential for Project Rousseau staff to be able to connect with their students and help them connect with the world around them so they get not only the social services they need, but also opportunities for personal growth.

How AT&T and Connected Nation are ​​helping to connect some of Project Rousseau’s most vulnerable students

Connected Nation, in partnership with AT&T, has completed the deployment of 35,000 hotspots as part of their K-12 Homework Gap Program. These hotspots, equipped with more than a year of free internet service, will help thousands of students in need of high-speed internet. 

Project Rousseau was one of 124 awardees across the United States to receive free hotspots and internet service thanks to the program.

“The hotspots provided by the Homework Gap Program have been essential for many of our students,” said Heinrich. “In many cases, before (the Homework Gap Program) allocated the hotspots, some students only had an internet connection on their school bus.” 

These hotspots have also impacted students outside of the classroom.

For example, Heinrich identified a student whose critical social service need was unknown to Project Rousseau’s team before they were connected to the internet. “With no hotspot, there was no way of communicating with the adults who were in a position to get them a referral for the help that they needed. That was a huge benefit we saw right away from the hotspots.”      

After the first round of hotspots was deployed, Project Rousseau saw such a huge impact that the organization applied for more. 

“Parts of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota struggle with internet access anyway, and then the pandemic made it worse,” said Heinrich. “It was a critical need across the entire reservation that we were already addressing … before the pandemic. The pandemic just accelerated the need.”

Connected Nation and AT&T originally sent Project Rousseau 115 hotspots. When the nonprofit applied again, they sent 18 more specifically for the Rosebud Reservation.

“Once we started getting a few hotspots out there from the first initiative from AT&T and Connected Nation, we were met with a wave of additional needs,” said Heinrich. “That’s why we circled back to you all. This program has very, very generously helped us out a second time, which was phenomenal.”

An answer during difficult times 

Having an efficient internet connection has meant so much to Project Rousseau’s students.

“Something I often tell my students is one of my childhood heroes always said that in the most difficult of times, it’s important to always look for the helpers because even in really challenging times, there are people who lend a helping hand,” said Heinrich. “I think that the hotspots were so important to many of these students because at a time that was extremely difficult, they concretely found a helper. And I think that the hotspot was obviously a very physical manifestation of that helper.”

The K-12 Homework Gap Program has helped Project Rousseau and thousands of other students across the country get the connectivity they deserve. Keeping students connected — especially those who face many challenges every day — is critically important. That’s why Connected Nation is committed to helping those in need.

“What I think is great about helping with internet access is it’s a portal to helping with so many other things, and it’s connecting our students to other services,” said Heinrich. “My hope is that the funders who made this program possible realize that this is an area they can continue to have an amazing impact in in the years to come, regardless of how COVID-19 continues to evolve.”

If you’d like to support Project Rousseau’s work, check out their website for ways to give back or to donate to the organization. 

Learn more about the AT&T K-12 Homework Gap Program by heading over to our webpage, www.connectednation.hatfield.marketing/homeworkgap/#map.

About the Author: Lily McCoy is the Connected Nation Communications Social Media Specialist. She provides support to the Communications Department through social media outreach and writing. She also adds a source of creativity to the team with a background in personal relations and marketing. Lily has a bachelors in corporate and organizational communications from Western Kentucky University. 

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