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Amid the pandemic, a landmark program keeps students plugged in

Boxes in the back of a car

Photo courtesy of Glenn Cruz

By Abby Cohn

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Berkeley to pivot to remote learning last year, an exceptional campus program extended a digital lifeline to thousands of financially needy students.

The Student Technology Equity Program (STEP) has kept 4,700 undergraduate and graduate students educationally connected by loaning out laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots, webcams, and other essential tools.

Funded by $4.6 million in campus funds and another $500,000 from the student-approved Student Technology Fee, STEP was launched in July 2020. Last year, it loaned over 10,000 pieces of technology equipment, including 2,265 laptops, 2,564 hot spots, and 1,450 pairs of noise-canceling headphones, to students facing significant challenges stemming from the pandemic and other financial hardships.

STEP coordinators scrambled to fill those orders. Along with shipping devices directly from warehouses to students, “we packed and shipped tons of boxes ourselves,” says Jennifer Bombasaro McNulty, the analyst for the campus’s Student Technology Fund, which has been at the heart of the STEP operation. “We were just trying to turn out hardware for students as fast as we could.”

Bombasaro McNulty wasn’t surprised by the heavy demand for the loans, which are available for up to four years or until graduation.

“When you know the extent of housing and food insecurity that some of our students have, knowing that they don’t have a brand-new $1,200 laptop is not really a surprise,” she says. “We had students writing papers on their phones because they didn’t have laptops.”

Bombasaro McNulty hailed STEP as a reflection of “the true ethos of the university and its public mission.”

This year, the program is operating with support from the Cal Parents Fund, a discretionary fund administered by the Chancellor’s office. This critical, flexible funding from Cal parent donors enables the campus to respond to immediate needs and emerging opportunities that impact the student experience.

One of STEP’s beneficiaries was first-generation college student Julisa Gaytan ’23, a double-major in public health and sociology. At the start of her freshman year, Gaytan relied on Moffitt Library’s laptop lending program until she received a laptop as a Christmas gift from her family. When COVID hit and Gaytan moved back home to Fresno, she found that the hot spot on her phone didn’t work. She was forced to drive to her brother’s house whenever she needed a Wi-Fi connection.

“It was just very frustrating to continue with classes,” she says. “It made going to school difficult on top of all of the other strains the pandemic caused.”

STEP provided Gaytan with a Wi-Fi plan that continued through the end of August. Now back on campus, Gaytan is supporting STEP as a student employee and recently joined the Student Technology Council, which advises campus IT leadership on technology matters.

The pandemic, Gaytan says, exacerbated the vulnerabilities faced by many Berkeley students and highlighted the digital divide that exists on college campuses. “STEP has been a good program to help remedy and alleviate those issues in order to make progress towards equity,” she says.

Berkeley’s effort captured the attention of other universities internationally, and many contacted STEP for information. “The need to provide a more level playing field for students in terms of technology is going to persist,” says Bombasaro McNulty.

STEP is continuing this year, albeit in a scaled-back form. Though the program has discontinued Wi-Fi service plans, it continues to loan laptops, headsets, webcams, and other devices.

Gifts to the Cal Parents Fund support impactful programs like STEP that enhance the experience of Berkeley students and make a lasting difference in their educational paths.

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