Earlier this month, the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) was named the nation’s recipient of the Presidential Award for Economic Opportunity, certifying UNO as a higher education leader in community engagement.
The award, which is part of the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, is the highest honor a university or college can receive by the United States government for its commitment to volunteering, service-learning and civic engagement.
The announcement of this year’s Honor Roll, made by Corporation for National and Community Service, identifies UNO as one of only four Presidential Award-level recipients and the only winner nationally for creating economic opportunity through community engagement efforts.
Read on below to learn about one of our award-winning projects, Computer Basics for Inmates.
Computer Basics for Inmates
Portions of this story were taken from the Spring 2007 UNO Magazine
In some situations, a lack of proficiency in basic information technology may just be the difference between an inmate’s recidivism and their rehabilitation.
This gap is why one UNO service-learning course has tackled this problem head-on.
Computer Basics for Inmates, launched by College of Information Science & Technology (IS&T) associate professor Donna Dufner in 2006, takes UNO students into the Douglas County Department of Corrections (DCDC) to assist in teaching computer basics to inmates – including everything from handling a computer to using Windows and Office. Each UNO student is assigned an inmate to work with their goal being to learn customer service orientation and experience in service to the community.
In preparation for the course, each student must attend a mandatory training session covering jail operations and volunteer responsibilities provided by the DCDC. For another 13 weeks of the semester, students work directly with the inmates on improving their computer literacy skills.
As part of the project’s reflection process, each student is required to compile photos and notes on team discussions and create a presentation (e.g., videos, posters, PowerPoint, photo journals) to reflect on their experience at the jail and the material being taught in the class.
“Tutoring inmates provided me with an alternative view of the criminal justice system,” one student shared. “I started the process with a preconceived notion of an inmate, but after tutoring inmates for the last three months my stereotypes have been squashed. They are enthusiastic learners.”
Dufner says she got the idea during a tour of the jail facility while part of a Leadership Omaha class.
"The inmates all looked so bored, I wanted to see what I could do to help them," she recalls. "They aren't all hardened criminals. These are people who have made mistakes. And while they can't erase what they've done, they want to improve their lives and their chances for success."
Each class held at the Douglas County Jail consists of approximately ten inmates who have had little or no training using a computer. Inmates are also encouraged to write letters to their families, or to create cards for friends and family on special occasions.
“My wife told me that my son brought his birthday card to school and showed it to his teacher,” one inmate said. “I had no idea why he would enjoy reading it so much.”
Teaching computer basics to inmates has both an immediate financial as well as a social impact that can be felt throughout the community. Knowledge of technology and social networks assist inmates in making a successful reentry into society. Instead of returning to the same negative cycle contributing to recidivism.
“It’s important for people to have objectives, and I believe if those objectives are written down it improves your chances of reaching those objectives,” Dufner says. “It’s nice to know where you want to go, but you have to know how you plan to get there.”