Two Arizona tribal colleges will receive grants to improve internet access for students

Diné College and the Tohono O’odham Community College received multi-million-dollar grants to support their efforts to improve educational and economic opportunity within their tribal communities by improving internet access, providing more hardware and investing in information technology personnel.

“We knew that we had to extend our services beyond our campuses and centers to the Navajo Nation, and part of this funding will allow us to fund broadband services across the reservation,” Diné College IT Director, Ihab Saleh said in a press release. “We will also be investing in our staff, because it is the people behind the scenes that make any project work.”

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The grants were awarded by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration as part of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.

“America’s minority-serving colleges and universities are bedrock learning centers that have too often been left behind when it comes to accessing affordable high-speed internet,” Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves said in a press release announcing the grant awards. 

The Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program is reserved for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions to purchase broadband internet access service and eligible equipment or to hire and train IT staff. 

Diné College will receive more than $2.9 million in funding to support the college’s efforts to implement classroom technology upgrades, provide a community technology hub, develop workforce training, economic growth, digital literacy skills, and internships or apprenticeships

“Diné College remains the first tribal college in the country and the institution continues to inspire Navajo students seeking a higher education,” Navajo Nation Speaker Seth Damon said in a press release. “The CONNECT NAVAJO project will provide high-speed broadband internet to our students who need it most.”

The project aims to improve educational and economic opportunities on the Navajo Nation by enhancing internet access, providing more hardware, and investing in IT staff. 

“Access to computers and reliable internet is crucial to student’s success in the classroom,” U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly said in a press release. “This grant will ensure Diné College students have access to new laptops, mobile hotspots, printing kiosks as well as professional development training.” 

CONNECT NAVAJO aims to ensure that the Diné people can continue to reside in their homes on Navajo Nation and benefit from access to technology that helps them earn academic credentials and enter economically rewarding and personally fulfilling careers, according to the program description from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

“Today’s critical funding will make a big difference for students on the Navajo Nation — expanding internet access, improving retention rate, and moving one step closer to closing the digital divide,” U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said in a press release. “I’m proud to help secure this necessary investment for Diné College.”

The Tohono O’odham Community College will receive more than $1.9 million in funding to support the college’s efforts to improve digital literacy skills, workforce training, economic growth and community technology hub and upgrades.

The project from Tohono O’odham Community College to receive funding is called the Hewel Wepegi Macidag kc, wog, or the “Learning the Internet Road.” The project is designed to directly address the lack of broadband access, connectivity, adoption and equity at the college and on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

“The overarching goal of the program is to support economic development on the Tohono O’odham Nation through digital workforce development, community connectivity improvement, and computer literacy enhancement,” the program description states.

The Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program was developed as part of the Biden administration’s Internet for All initiative that seeks to connect everyone in the U.S. with affordable, reliable high-speed internet. 

“The Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program enables these institutions to be a resource for access, digital skills training, and workforce development programs for students and the community to help level the economic playing field,” Graves said.

Five grants were awarded as part of the CMC program, totaling more than $10.6 million in funding. The grants will be used to fund internet access, equipment, and to hire and train information technology personnel. 

Applications were evaluated by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration using a three-stage process: Initial Administrative and Eligibility Review of Complete Application Packets, Merit Review, and Programmatic Review. 

The review criteria included the project purpose, project needs and benefits, project viability and innovation, project budget, and then project evaluation.

These are only the first five grants awarded, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will continue to review more than 200 applications they received before the application closed on December 1, 2021. Awards will be announced on a rolling basis.

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