With Professor Randy Villegas, College of the Sequoias
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your community?
I’m currently a professor at the College of the Sequoias Community College here in the South Valley. I’ve also been previously involved in organizing efforts, sort of advocacy around a lot of different issues like immigration and healthcare. At the beginning of the pandemic, I co-authored an op-ed in Bakersfield, California, because we noticed there wasn’t a prioritization for increasing broadband access to youth and students as we transitioned to online distance learning. I think there were a lot of assumptions around this transition to distance learning and access to broadband, not necessarily internet access, but access to spaces in general that people weren’t taking into consideration.
I know former Representative TJ Cox proposed a broadband bill of rights when he was in Congress. I’m hoping we have more local officials paying attention to broadband circumstances that people deal with because especially in the Valley, I think there’s such a lack of competition and a lack of government spending to solve the problem.
As a professor, what challenges have you noticed in the student population?
There’s a saying that goes in community colleges where we take the top 100% of students, right. We take anybody who has a GED or doesn’t have a GED. So, not only do you have the challenges of students who are facing the pandemic conditions, but also on a socioeconomic level, taking on other jobs or family responsibilities, caretaking, and other responsibilities that they didn’t necessarily have before. It’s only just become exacerbated in this moment. On top of these challenges, I think there was this big assumption – not only in the Central Valley, but all across the United States – that youth are technologically literate as they know how to use TikTok and Snapchat.
When it comes down to it, you’d be surprised how many students were asking me, “I don’t really know how to use Microsoft Word properly or how to convert files.” I think there was just this big assumption that students were just going to log into online school and know everything. I’ve tried to be as lenient as possible with things like due dates because I have found that students have trouble, whether it’s because of WiFi issues or because of additional responsibilities that they’ve had to take on since the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, some colleges essentially used student’s contact information to call them and see if they needed a hotspot or a Chromebook. There were some shortages, as I understand, and it took a few weeks to accommodate everybody.
However, I don’t think there was enough of an effort around technological literacy in addition to sort of just standing up devices. For example, my little sister who was a high school freshman, was basically handed this Chromebook. And then she wasn’t really given much information outside of the first weeks, such as how to log into your classes. One of the things that she and teachers in the district was that there would be random events throughout the year where passwords would just be reset or their accounts will be reset and they wouldn’t know what to do. Some students would miss a class or two because they weren’t giving warning ahead of time.
What are some goals that should be on the minds of government officials in 2021?
I think an expansion of affordable broadband is crucial. We have seen a few cities invest in public WiFi infrastructure and things like that, but that’s something that I think absolutely needs to be done in these rural areas. I think there needs to be more devoted spaces. It’s unfortunate in my eyes that a lot of these WiFi hotspots, aside from public libraries, which we’ll get to in just a second, are restaurants or fast food places. There are places in which people are expected to pay something, a premium, to sit at a table and take out their laptop and gain access to the WiFi.
I’ve been an advocate for libraries in our county, but most branches are only open two to three days a week, and then it’s very limited hours from 11:00 AM to like 5:00 PM or something like that. So there’s a lack of access to our libraries which offer pretty decent WiFi in my opinion, and sometimes offer a lot of computers, et cetera. Since these resources aren’t available to people five days a week, people are forced to drive to that McDonald’s and sit in the parking lot hoping they can access WiFi until their battery runs out.
These aren’t conditions for success and we’re just conditioning ourselves for failure until we get local officials and even the federal government stepping in to provide better infrastructure for broadband. Somehow I think we need to start thinking about the internet as a utility that people arguably need as a necessity, especially in today’s age. Until we get that sort of attention, and we start getting elected officials to use that language, they’re going to see better speeds and access as a privilege for the wealthy and people in rural communities are going to continue to be left out.