Connecting the Community
by Tim Kaldahl
The Computer Technology Center (CTC) in a renovated North Omaha building once owned by Lozier manages to be several things at the same time. In a real-world way, it's a terrific classroom and computer lab space with great equipment. More thoughtfully, the center has become a place where better futures get launched.
"It's helping people who otherwise wouldn't even get to the starting blocks," said Tony Baker, one of two Urban League technology instructors at the CTC. He and Linda McKleny, the other instructor, teach the center's "Independence Project" classes in a way that is both supportive and concrete for their students. The two mix computer software instruction with advice on job searches, along with career and personal planning.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and the Urban League of Nebraska are partners in the CTC, which opened in 2002 on the second floor of the Gateway Building, 4402 N. 21st St. The CTC's two classrooms – one large, one small – have more than 40 top-of-the-line computers supplied by UNO.
"People who have never touched a keyboard are a lot of our clients," Baker said. "What we've been telling them is that jobs where you think you don't need a computer, you need a computer. The class makes a big difference."
The students in the Independence Project during the past year have ranged in age from teens to adults in their 50s. Class meets six hours a day for twelve weeks, and students are expected to arrive on time, "just like work," McKleny said. The students have been mostly female, unemployed and have little hands-on experience with technology. The class starts by going even more basic than computer basics – getting people comfortable with the keyboard.
The Independence Project students, UNO and Metropolitan Community College students in the area, and the public all can use the machines, which have Internet access and the Microsoft Office suite of programs. Both spaces are also "smart classrooms" with instructor computers hooked into video projectors. A second CTC site will open in South Omaha early in the spring semester.
More than 20 students graduated from the last Independence Project class section and another class will finish Jan. 28. The students – many of who are attending thanks to tuition waivers from Nebraska Health and Human Services – get a solid grounding in many of the business world's most popular applications.
"I really didn't want the class to stop," said Michele Taylor, 25, who completed her Independence Project work in October. "Twelve weeks, to me, was not enough."
Keyboard skills are always the starting point, followed by computer concepts, word processing, Internet navigation, basic spreadsheets, database files and presentation software. Baker even opens up and takes apart a computer, and lets students put it together again as an exercise to make them more comfortable with the machines. And getting comfortable with new equipment in a new setting helps.
"All inventory jobs in the city, from what we researched, are now computerized," said Lanyce Keel, assistant planning director for distance education at UNO. "Auto shops have computer diagnostics for cars today, too."
Keel adds that making Independence Project students feel at ease with computers – along with the career advice – may be enough for some to help them enter the workforce. For others, she said, the CTC can start them on a different path entirely.
"They can move through the educational ladder more easily," she said.
Taylor, who couldn't get enough of the Independence Project, is now very much on a different path, both for herself and her three children. Less than two month after finishing at the CTC, she started at Metropolitan Community College. She said she hopes to transfer to UNO in two years.
"You just have to set your mind to do it and do it," Taylor said. The time spent working with the computer programs, along with working on presentation skills and short- and long-term planning, were valuable for her, she said.
"You almost look at it being fifty-fifty," McKleny said of the Independence Project. The teaching focuses on both job training skills, and social and self-concept skills. The majority of the computer program classwork takes place in the morning. Afternoons are more about self-concepts, although the computer programs are used extensively.
Students examine their household budgets with Excel; job searches and career research can be done online; a final project that summarizes the class, along with recording personal and professional goals and dreams, are done in PowerPoint; and students give their presentations in front of an audience.
"If people don't have those skills (professional expertise and the ability to set goals), they'll always sit at home and not be able to do anything," McKleny said.
Tammy Francis, who also completed the Independence Project course, said she brought fairly good typing skills with her, but working with the instructors and other students made her less shy – and more likely to find a job.
"I know there's a company out there for me," she said.
When possible, McKleny and Baker take the Independence Project students to job fairs, as well.
"This is a starting point," Baker said. "When people start to succeed, they want to succeed more."
Michele Taylor's final presentation echoed Baker's point about success. She said she hopes to eventually earn both computer and business degrees that would put her on the path to becoming a computer operations manager. A personal goal, projected onto a screen for everyone to see, thanks to PowerPoint, was simply "living nicer and happy." Her presentation ends with "And being a working mom, I can see it all."
Tim Kaldahl is assistant director of media relations at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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