UMass Boston Kids Part of Exclusive One Laptop Per Child Africa Corps

Olesia Plokhii | September 11, 2009
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Students Get to Know South Africa While Increasing Computer Literacy

A group of three University of Massachusetts Boston students volunteered in South Africa this summer, taking part in a worldwide effort to distribute free laptops to schoolchildren as part of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based One Laptop Per Child program.

Part of the OLPC’s Africa Corps, Olesia Plokhii (Political Science ‘09), (Anastasia Romaniouk (Criminal Justice ’10), and John Keniley (Economics ‘11) trained teachers, set up Internet routers, and taught students how to use the child-friendly laptops at the Lilydale Higher Primary School in Soweto, a Johannesburg neighborhood best known as one of the flashpoints of the country’s long struggle against apartheid.

The students signed on for the 10-week project after receiving an email from UMass Boston career counselor Shannon Seaver-Rojas. But this wasn’t just a matter of volunteering and then getting on a plane: The students had to apply for the program, and in doing so explain how they would get the students to learn how to use their laptops, known as the "XO." In their application, the group proposed to introduce journalism skills to the schoolchildren by teaching them to document their lives using photos, video, word processing, and blogging functions on the XO.

The OLPC accepted the application, and provided the group with 100 XOs, a stipend for project and living expenses, and a ten-day training session in Kigali, Rwanda, where they were joined by teams from Miami and Chicago as well as teams from Canada, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Ghana. After the training, Romaniouk said she was confident that she and other members of the UMass Boston team could fulfill their mission.

"OLPC was very effective in giving us training, and sharing successful XO case studies," she said. "Also, collaborating with other youth expanded our horizons in Soweto."

Instead of starting their project in late June as they had expected, the UMass Boston team ran into delays, including a teacher’s strike and the school’s three-week winter holiday break. But the team made the most of their delay, moving into Kliptown, the squatter camp that is home of their local partner, the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP), an NGO which in 2008 hosted OLPCS’s first South African distribution. While living in Kliptown and helping take care of the KYP’s 350 children, the team lived like their neighbors in shacks without heat or electricity, cooking meals on a propane stove and hand-washing their own clothes.

Three weeks later, after Lilydale students returned to school after their winter break, the UMass Boston team stood in front of teachers, parents, press, and local officials as they handed out a green cardboard box to every student in the grade five class.

Barely able to wait for her turn, Phumelele Dhlamini remembered the way she felt opening her box—and seeing the laptop for the first time—in the courtyard that day.

"I was excited [because] this was the first time I had a laptop," said the outgoing 10-year-old. After a few weeks of using it, Dhlamini was even more fond of the XO than before—and realized how lucky she was to have received one.

"The XO is wicked cool because we do a lot of stuff on it," she said before having a change of thought. "[But] sometimes I feel sad because some children didn’t have this opportunity."

In fact, the majority of the students in the school—250 children—won’t be able to use the donated laptops because the XOs are joint property of Lilydale and the student, an idea employed by OLPC to foster creative education outside of school. So while Plokhii, Romaniouk, and Keniley are en route back to Boston next week, they’ll have plenty of time—16 hours worth—to think about possible ways to keep giving to the project that gave them so much.

"After going on this trip and experiencing a different kind of life, I’ve developed an appreciation for America’s high standard of living," Keniley said. "So much so, that when we start school in the fall, I plan to open a OLPC club on campus and fundraise to continue supporting XOs in Soweto."

Romaniouk, who said that despite being excited to return to Cape Cod’s beaches, she had a difficult time parting with the more than 450 children involved in the OLPC project at KYP and Lilydale—in part because of the XO’s potential to affect not only a child, but an adult.

"Seeing the children on the XO has unleashed a genuine understanding of the inherent imagination in every child," she said. "It’s an incredibly empowering feeling."

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