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UW’s IT Academy expands statewide to Native American youth

A UW-Madison technology program that promotes diversity has announced plans to expand to disadvantaged Native Americans and share knowledge of its successful model with organizations such as the Madison Urban League.

The expansion of the UW's Information Technology Academy was announced during the Fusion CEO-CIO Symposium produced by WTN Media, as Program Director Erica Laughlin and Darrell Bazzell, vice chancellor of UW-Madison touted the ITA's benefits.

The pre-college program will be expanded to two yet-to-be identified Wisconsin Native American communities. ITA, which is part of UW's Division of Information Technology (DoIT), serves UW-Madison's goal of increasing diversity and expanding educational opportunities for all students. Its objective is to create a more diverse workforce through recruiting, hiring, and retaining IT professionals of minority status, which continues to challenge professionals in higher education IT.

Bruce Maas, CIO and vice provost for information at UW-Madison, characterized information technology as “largely a white male industry,” a characteristic that programs like the ITA can address within UW-Madison and by sharing knowledge with outside organizations.

“The reality is when we have teams of individuals who think differently, who look at the world differently, and who come from different generations and backgrounds, it strengthens technology teams and actually reduces risk by bringing in different ways of thinking,” Maas said. ”Diversity is very important for IT leaders as a way of reducing risk and improving the overall strength of the teams we have working together.”
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Diversity challenge

If the university. and society in general, is going to reach diversity goals, the number of Wisconsin minority high school graduates who are “well-prepared' for college will have to increase substantially. Clare Huhn, a senior policy and planning analyst for academic planning and institutional research at UW-Madison, noted the university uses the statewide ACT average of 22, along with a high school rank in the top 25%, as the definition of “well-prepared.”

Based on that definition, the pool of Wisconsin minority high school graduates who are well prepared for UW-Madison is only 6%. That compares to 25% of white graduates. There are roughly14,000 well-prepared white Wisconsin high school graduates annually, compared to 372 Asians, 221 Hispanics, 108 African Americans, and 52 Native Americans.

With such low numbers, it's more difficult to promote diversity and build a pipeline of future IT professionals. Programs like the ITA can help leverage even these low numbers, particularly if the knowledge is shared with groups like the Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Madison Urban League, which is developing its own version of the ITA.

The situation isn't news to state officials, especially those with IT backgrounds. David Cagigal, CIO of the state of Wisconsin Department of Enterprise Technology, said the IT industry continues to struggle to attract the best and the brightest students, and he's encouraged by the success of the ITA model. “The IT profession is not viewed as a high-flying career and we're struggling to find enough young people, mostly young women, who consider this to be a serious career,” he said. “We're waning in interest and these academies and programs help address the building of a farm system for the IT career.

“Any program like this, whether it be the Urban League or whether it be DoIT or any other program that strengthens that farm system so that we have a good pipeline of IT professionals for the future, is good for us.”

The ITA's progress has been both gradual and impressive. As part of the UW-Madison's diversity initiative, ITA recruited its first group of students in May of 2000; by June of 2012, 138 students had completed the program, with a remarkable 98% going on to attend a post-secondary institution and earning degrees in computer science, engineering, law, and biochemistry.

Thirteen years ago, ITA began with an annual budget of approximately $88,000, and has seen it grow to $590,000. With the expansion, its budget gradually will be increased by $310,000 over the next four years until it reaches $900,000.

The money helps ITA compete for students in their final semester of eighth grade; students must apply for ITA during the 8th grade, so the ITA starts recruiting students as young as 12 and 13.

In general, Laughlin said incoming students are interested in computers and in some kind of science, medical, or technology-related career. “Even if they change minds later, the structure of the program is flexible enough to give them some discovery and exploration,” she said. “We find that when they go to college, they may end up majoring in something else such as political science but they tend to get jobs that sustain them in the IT industry."

“Some of them have jobs at DoIT, but they are majoring in political science and still fusing the two things together. That speaks to the program flexibility. One of the things we emphasize is that technology reaches into so many disciplines.“

Student perspective

ITA provides four years of technology access and training for a diverse mix of students attending Madison public schools. Incoming students attend a two-week summer technology training camp at UW-Madison. Those who successfully complete the camp are inducted into the four-year program and receive a desktop computer and printer on loan.

The focus is on academic preparation, technological literacy, leadership, and community service, and the time commitment is significant, noted ITA Logistical Assistant Kyara Moss, a 2008 program graduate, a current senior at the UW-Madison, and now a staff member at ITA.

“When you tell a 12- or 13-year-old that for the next four years, they will have to give up every other Saturday for eight hours, they will have to take two to six weeks during their summers for camps and internships, and possibly missing extra curriculum activities at school such as sports just to be apart of ITA, I don't think they fully understand the commitment they are making,” she stated. “For me personally, I didn't quite grasp it right away until I was thrown into the mix.”

Not that she would have it any other way. Moss' involvement with the program dates back to 2004, and she can't help being a bit envious of new enrollees and the advanced instruction they receive, allowing them to be extremely creative through various arts, music as well as technology. “Due to the-ever changing world of IT, what students will be learning in the program the next four years will be even more advanced than what current students are learning,” she stated.”

Moss is an example of a graduate who migrated back to the program to give back. “It's amazing how many of Erica's graduates come back and take part in the program as instructors and mentors,” remarked John Krogman, COO of DoIT. “I think that says a lot for the program as well. Those folks got so much out of it that they feel a responsibility to give back.”

Anisa Yudawanti, a current high school sophomore student in the program, agrees with Moss about the ITA commitment, but noted that program benefits go well beyond the use of a computer. “Knowing that there are instructors and staff to help you is very reassuring,” she related. “Whether it is from school work to technology problems to your personal life, I really benefit from ITA's involvement in my life."

“Technology wise, the ITA has helped me acquire computer skills that the average adult may not even have. This advantage can be applied to not only high school, but college and beyond, and this is something that is extremely valuable,“ Yadawanti stated.

Wisconsin Idea

Darrell Bazzell, who serves on the Madison Urban League's board of directors, noted that the 13-year-old ITA program is a manifestation of the Wisconsin Idea, but it's also good for the university. “The most recent statistics suggest that about 55% of the students coming out of ITA become UW-Madison students,” he noted. “As Erica suggests, these students are incredibly well prepared to move onto post-secondary education.”

Perhaps the most important thing about the program is that it represents a creative way to tackle a problem whose solution has many benefits. “We have two ways of looking at the issue of lack of diversity in IT,” Maas said. “One is to wring our hands and say that's the way it is. The other way is to actively engage and say there is a solution."

WTN Media has supported the ITA program since the early 2000s and announced another contribution during the recent Fusion CEO-CIO Symposium. “ITA is an innovative technology access and training program for talented students of color and economically disadvantaged students,” noted Mike Klein, CEO and editorial director of WTN Media. “Their mission is to prepare students for technical, academic, and personal excellence in today's Information Age.”

Individuals can support that mission by making online donations on the Academy website at http://ita.wisc.edu" and clicking "Support ITA." Corporate sponsors, interested mentors, and Wisconsin organizations that would like to learn more abut the ITA model can contact Erica Laughlin at 608-265-2408.

In so doing, they support a program that paves both educational and career paths. When Moss graduated from the ITA in 2008, she began to reflect on her four years in the program and realized the hours she devoted to ITA were well worth it. “It's the only reason I am at UW-Madison,” she stated. “There is no possible way I would be able to pay for my tuition without the full scholarship I received on behalf of the dedication I gave to ITA.”

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