Every technology course at Street Youth Ministries, in Seattle, begins with a question young people living on the street don’t typically hear: “What’s your dream job?”
The New Tech for Youth Sessions (a name young people helped come up with) program provides hands-on training in technology literacy and life skills to homeless and street youth. Young people come with various levels of comfort and familiarity with technology, the program’s leaders say, but all youth who complete the program develop the tech skills necessary to find employment. Many also leave with a newfound sense of confidence.
A partnership between Street Youth Ministries, which serves homeless and at-risk youth ages 13 to 22, and the University of Washington Information School, New Tech differs from programs that focus on helping youth earn income right away. While enabling youth to start paying rent and get off the street as quickly as possible is important, says Tyler Bauer, program manager at Street Youth Ministries, New Tech has a larger goal.
“The sessions aren’t really about youth learning particular computer applications or a narrow set of skills but rather being able to envision themselves in a new place in life,” says David Hendry. To that end, in the first class, students use computers to create a poster explaining where they want to be and what they want to be doing five years down the road. Students then present their posters to the rest of the class.
Hendry, an associate professor at the university, along with Jill Woelfer, a Ph.D. student, helped develop the New Tech for Youth Sessions curriculum, which teaches basic technology skills while also tackling issues that might prevent youth from setting and achieving their goals.
Youth who complete the series of six sessions over three weeks receive their own iPods and iTunes gift cards—rewards that also serve to further enhance their technology skills. More than 50 young people—nearly all the youth who started the program since its launch early this year—have successfully completed the sessions, which cover topics from word processing and sending e-mail to figuring out which employment sites are most useful.
In the sessions, youth learn how to engage with the digital world. One class, Hendry says, focuses on the challenges of online identity, where private life can be made public and permanent. Of the youth who completed the sessions, 49 already had MySpace accounts and used them regularly to connect with others and write about their life experiences. While some young people understood the need to protect their identity online, others felt censoring certain parts of their lives denied who they really were.
In one of the program’s final assignments, everyone applies for a job online. Youth can also use computers in Street Youth Ministries’ drop-in center to print resumes and hunt for jobs.
Hendry notes that some young people are nervous when they first come to the sessions. When putting together a resume, many young people say they don’t have any skills. As they move through each class, he says, they open up, become more engaged, communicate more and begin to help each other, he says. They’re not only learning to interact with technology, they’re learning to interact in the real world, too. Technology skills and life skills—two essential ingredients for landing that dream job.