Project will provide broadband and technology access to underserved students and communities

Bryan Carter holds a virtual reality headset

Bryan Carter, shown here holding a virtual reality headset, is the principal investigator for Project CAN, which will address the need for broadband internet access, connectivity and digital inclusion in highly diverse Southern Arizona communities.

The University of Arizona has received a $3 million grant to connect distance students and underserved communities across Southern Arizona with enhanced broadband access and technology, as well as educational and workforce development programs.

Project CAN, which stands for "Connect Arizona Now: Digital Inclusion for Underserved Students and Communities of Southern Arizona," will be funded by a two-year, $3,051,875 grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce – under the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.

UArizona was eligible for the grant as a result of its designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. The project will address the dire need for broadband internet access, connectivity and digital inclusion in highly diverse, often rural, communities in Southern Arizona. The project's two primary goals are to support UArizona students in need and to provide digital literacy and workforce development through community organizations.

"This award is a great example of how our HSI designation positively impacts the local community and a diverse cross-section of students in need," said Marla Franco, UArizona vice president for Hispanic-Serving Institution initiatives.

The ambitious two-pronged approach requires both university and community partners, said Bryan Carter, principal investigator for the project. Carter is director of the College of Humanities' Center for Digital Humanities, which will coordinate with the project's community partners, the Dunbar Pavilion: An African American art and culture center and the Tucson Urban League. University Libraries will manage an expansion of its existing technology lending services, providing the equipment needed for remote learning to more students in need. The Near You Network, which offers degree programs at locations around the state, will enhance opportunities for distance education students by expanding network and classroom technologies at the university's Pascua Yaqui microcampus, which opened last year, as well university locations in Douglas, Thatcher and Yuma.

"We wanted to make sure that in addition to just providing access, we can deliver something beyond that access that's meaningful, including productive and creative tools and workforce development programming, so that we can facilitate economic empowerment," Carter said. "Being able to provide that holistic approach to the community is going to be really important, and we look forward to continuing our collaboration to address digital inclusion and equity in this region."

"The University of Arizona is committed to providing students with the support and resources they need to succeed, and as a land-grant institution, we are also committed to serving the needs of our greater Arizona community," University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins said. "This project exemplifies how these aspects of our mission reinforce each other and it will have tremendous meaning and impact for people in Southern Arizona."   

Dunbar an 'ideal partner' for project

The collaboration among the university, the Dunbar Pavilion and the Tucson Urban League will create programming driven by community-identified needs. The Dunbar Pavilion, an African American arts and culture center at the site of a historic segregated school, is an ideal partner for the project, Carter said.

"By the nature of what we do in the digital humanities – center the human first – we already have established relationships with communities surrounding the university," Carter said. "We as digital humanists go out to the community and interact in a different way. There's an element of trust built into that relationship, so we're hoping to make a different sort of impact and be received differently than somebody who just swoops in with a bunch of technology."

The grant will support the development of multiple projects at Dunbar, including a family resource center, an education resource center and museum, and a financial empowerment center operated by the Tucson Urban League. Cox Communications is partnering to provide broadband internet access for the Dunbar Pavilion, and El Rio Health will collaborate on health and wellness programs at the site.

"From Dunbar's perspective, we want to turn a part of Dunbar into a space where people aren't just coming to visit, or not just coming when there's a concert or an event, but a place you can come for resources," said Sam Brown, president of the Dunbar Pavilion board of directors. "We want people to come into Dunbar with a problem or a need and walk out with a solution."

Serving students in need

For the distance education component, the grant will be used to purchase technology – including expanded broadband capacity and interactive distance learning equipment such as video infrastructure – and to provide for necessary support staff.

Working with campus partners, University Libraries will coordinate a major expansion of its technology lending services for students most in need, lending remote learning equipment such as Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, headphones and web cameras.

"Technology lending through our Rhonda G. Tubbs Tech Toolshed is a core service of the library that illustrates how our mission of leveling the playing field for all students extends to new areas of support we provide," said Shan Sutton, dean of University Libraries. "The Connect Arizona Now grant is a critical investment in expanding the reach of this service to help ensure every University of Arizona student has the technology they need to learn and succeed."

The expanded lending services will especially benefit distance students at the Pascua Yaqui microcampus and university locations in Douglas, Thatcher and Yuma. The grant funds the purchase of 300 new bundles – containing laptop computers, Wi-Fi hotspots and headphones—and makes two significant changes for the lending program, said Travis S. Teetor, University Libraries manager of technology and operations and one of the grant project's co-principal investigators. The loan period will be extended from three weeks to a semester at a time, and students who use the program will no longer have to pick up equipment in person, with bundles available for shipping over the next two years, starting in fall 2023. The tech lending services program will prioritize distance students most in need by considering criteria including Pell Grant eligibility and receipt of other need-based financial aid, working with the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid.

"Access to technology is considered a basic need. If you're going to be successful as a student, this is no longer considered optional," Teetor said.

The Near You Network will outfit classrooms with interactive distance learning equipment, video infrastructure and associated services and devices, while also funding additional necessary support staff. The technologically enhanced classrooms will make a significant difference in closing the achievement gap for distance education students.

"The Near You Network is delighted to be a partner of the Connect Arizona Now project. The aims of this project align very well with our work of expanding student access to University of Arizona degree and certificate programs," said Craig Wilson, vice provost for online, distance and continuing education. "The coupling of our Near You Network team's experience reaching out to students far from Tucson, including the communities of Yuma, Nogales and Douglas, with the addition of much-needed technology will go a long way toward positively changing the lives of our students and their families and communities throughout Southern Arizona."

The combination of technological assistance and programming for community members and students illustrates how digital humanities can provide context that allows people to make better use of digital tools, said Alain-Philippe Durand, Dorrance Dean of the College of Humanities.

"We're pleased that our Center for Digital Humanities is at the heart of this project because the connectivity is just a tool. What's most important is how the technologies can be used to the benefit of students and our community partners," Durand said. "Digital literacy is most impactful when it's integrated with the essential skills of the humanities: communication, critical thinking, intercultural competence, adaptability and problem solving."