Rajan Sharma and Vibhor Jain were Cisco Networking Academy students at Amity University in northern India when they were nominated to become Cisco Student IT Ambassadors. They were thrilled to be involved with a company they admired, and soon discovered what it means to inspire others.
The digital divide in India is extreme. Approximately 40% of the population lives below the poverty line and 90% of the population lacks access to the Internet or the digital literacy to effectively use it. While Indian universities train and graduate engineers, developers, and entrepreneurs who drive the growth of the world’s information communication technology (ICT) sector, millions of people in remote villages and isolated communities will not participate in the global digital economy. (Learn more about the National Digital Literacy Mission.)
Rajan and Vibhor found their inspiration to study technology in the stories of technology entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zukerberg, Narayan Murthy, and Azeem Premji. “These are successful tycoons in IT,” explains Rajan. “They were nothing when they started and this is what inspires me. Azeem Premji diversified his father's company, Western Indian Vegetable Products (Wipro Limited), into an IT services company and emerged as a leader in the worldwide software industry. Narayana Murthy failed when he started Softronics, but he did not lose heart. He created Infosys, and is considered the ‘Father of the Indian IT Sector.’”
The Cisco Student IT Ambassadors (SITA) program taps the excitement of Networking Academy students to drive local community education programs. Networking Academy instructors nominate their top students who are put in teams and given the option to work with women, senior citizens, youth, or underprivileged and rural children. They choose where they would like to focus based on their own strengths and the partnerships they form with local organizations.
When Rajan and Vibhor met with Anuradha Sharma, a Cisco social innovation program manager in India, she helped determine where they could use their skills to increase digital literacy. “I told them you are a privileged person, you have access to technology,” said Anuradha. “There might be people in your community who need your help. You know which community in your area can best be addressed using your strengths.”
“We learned about the concept of a social innovation,” said Rajan, the Amity University team leader. “We came to understand that it is education that gives a sense of understanding. This helps individuals to grow and as a result the country also grows.”
“We were excited to be part of Cisco,” said Vibhor.
The Amity team chose ICT literacy for women and girls as their focus. They contacted local non-governmental organizations to establish a partnership and offer their services. Literacy India, which provides education to girls over age 7 and women in Bajhghera Village, welcomed their offer to teach digital literacy skills. The students developed a curriculum for 30 2-hour classes over 6 months, ranging from operating systems and open source software to piracy to stories about technology entrepreneurs.
When faced with challenges getting their own program off the ground, the team drew inspiration from the stories of their heroes. With no public transportation to the village technology center, the team had to find resources for regular travel to meet their commitment. “We asked our parents to support us,” said Vibhor. “They said, ‘The job which you have volunteered is a noble cause, and to do such noble job never look for any reward in it. Do it with your full potential.’”
The Amity University teams taught two groups of women: 20 young women interested in networking, and 20 students enrolled in a computer course. The 4 student ambassadors volunteered 240 hours over 6 months and received much praise from Literacy India and their students.
Anuradha has coached 4 teams with 20 participants through the program since 2012. A Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) team developed a 16-hour course to introduce Internet, email, and Google searches to senior citizens through a local bank. Another VIT team introduced Internet basics to 35 women who worked as domestic help in partnership with the Centre for Sustainable and Rural Development.
Students from the Trident Group of Institutions named their team “e-Abhiyan,” a Hindi word for a mission or campaign. Debaprasad Barad and his team members carried laptops and equipment through jungles to rural villages where students sat on the floor in thatched roof huts, eager to learn what they could about technology. Partnering with their university’s outreach program, they visited 18 schools and spoke to more than 4000 children, ages 10 to 15. See them in action: Team e-Abhiyan video.
“Before SITA, many of the community members could not even dream of using technology,” said Anuradha. “Now, they know it is here and how it could improve their life.”
“What do the ambassadors get out of it?” Anuradha asked. “They get hands-on experience in real-world situations. They learn how to work in a team. They get to plan things. They have real life experiences, real culture, and see how work happens. They change through the program. They exit with a tremendous level of confidence.” This confidence and experience improves their career prospects and likelihood of success.
“We learned many things,” said Rajan. “Planning a project required us to break it down into smaller, measurable goals. When we achieved those goals, we reviewed the growth. We had to negotiate with people, framing and expressing our thoughts and plans.”
“We learned much from the students in our classes and from Anuradha,” said Vibhor. “Before I joined this program, I was kind of a shy person who hesitated to present himself in front of a crowd. But now I would say the hesitation is no more.”