Wired And Connected But…? By Gustavo A. Mellander

Is it necessary to read and write to succeed in college? Students also need technological proficiency skills. They are essential. Yet too many Hispanics aren’t sufficiently computer savvy or Internet knowledgeable to function effectively when they arrive at college.

Hispanics and Computers 

A decade ago I wrote an article for Hispanic Outlook on this topic. Later it appeared in “Education Digest” renamed “High Tech: Help or Hindrance for Hispanics in College.” 
Studies had indicated that Hispanics although attending computer classes in high school and college were falling behind non-Hispanic students. Homework assignments that required computers were not completed. Hispanic students did poorly in classes which required accurate computer skills. 

The reason? Most Hispanic students did not own computers nor have them at home. Further, for a number of reasons, they could not access computers at local libraries, so they could not hone their computer skills. 

The issue was addressed at elite institutions by mandating all Freshmen-purchased computers. Later, other institutions simply issued them to all students and increased fees, billed financial aid, etc. 

Smartphones galore

The present reality has now shifted to handheld devices, which provide students easy access to computer information.

Recently, my wife and I went out for dinner.  I looked around the crowded dining room. Only one couple was engaged in conversation. They were young, in their early twenties. Theirs was an animated ex-change, punctuated with smiles and an occasional laugh. 

I told my wife, “I bet they aren’t married.” She gave me a wane smile and hoped, I am sure, I would not comment on every other person in the restaurant.

I ignored her lack of enthusiasm and incipient disapproval.  True to form, I glanced around the room.

Another table had what I surmised to be a seven-year-old boy, a 10-year-old sister and a 13-year-old brother with their parents. Each child had an iPad, and all were busily engaged, communicating with friends or playing games, I suppose.

Father was on his smartphone frowning occasionally: maybe checking out his investments or perhaps touching base with a business colleague. Mother was on her cellphone as well, maybe texting friends or perhaps she was on Facebook, sending pictures or commenting on incoming mail.

The father turned his cellphone off and clearly told the children to do the same — to no avail. The wife frowned at him and continued her private electronic conversation. The children never disconnected. They swallowed gulps of food barely moving their eyes off their iPads. 
I smugly thought, “Well, Hispanics don’t act that way.  They are family-oriented.”

Nielsen on Latinos and smartphones

That warm bubble began to disintegrate as I remembered Nielsen had reported that “Latinos are adopting smartphones faster than other U.S. ethnic and racial groups.” So why should their behavior, given the fullness of time, be different from anyone else?

I rummaged through my computer and was pleasantly surprised to find the three-year-old report.

Nielsen reported that 72 percent of Latinos over the age of 18 own smartphones. That was nearly 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Nearly half of them, 49 percent, planned to upgrade their smartphones within six months.

One can assume the family I saw at a Florida restaurant are a harbinger of the future for all of us.

Growing up too soon

Another reality: a few weeks later, I visited a group of seventh and eighth graders in a predominantly Hispanic school. The vast majority, 67 percent, have been in this country less than a year and know virtually no English at all. 

Valiant teachers teach U.S. history in Spanish and introduce as much English as they can. But given societal and family realities, it is hard to build that bridge. Very few students actually become bilingual, many become alienated, few finish high school, some (boys and girls) join the military desperate to escape.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that thousands of Hispanics have overcome similar circumstances and successfully entered the country’s mainstream. We must celebrate our victories.

The connection

What did all the children I visited — I call them children because even though they are growing up far too fast, they are still children — have in common?  They ALL had cellphones — given to them by welfare officers. Some were more sophisticated and up-to-date than the ones their teachers had purchased. 

Some teachers struggle to keep the phones shut off in class, some collect them at the beginning of every class. Others having been physically threatened and verbally abused have given up.

I was allowed to speak to the students alone. I emphasized I was neither a teacher nor a policeman. They loosened up but fiercely defended “their right” to use their phones however and whenever they wanted. 

The girls told me they used their cellphones to communicate with friends and keep up with celebrity news.  

Later, I met the boys separately. They challenged me and again defended “their right” to use their cellphones whenever. 

At first, they assured me they were just keeping in touch with their friends. “Come on, I know you are looking at girls,” I ventured. A few guffawed, and others laughed out loud. I knew I was right.  

Bottom Line

Something is wrong. We can’t and shouldn’t put the genie back in the bottle. Instant communication and untold information is at our fingertips.  There are many benefits, but there are dark ramifications as well.

Communication with “the world” is easy and rampant but shrinking among many families. Open access has some age-based limitations, but who’s supervising that?

Youngsters and even college-trained young professionals are placing personal material on the Internet, which could hurt them personally and professionally down the road. Pictures of a scantily dressed student on Spring break, inebriated, could be and have been viewed to their detriment by potential employers or those who wish to harm them.   

Shouldn’t society craft effective strategies to protect youngsters against themselves as they navigate our Wired Age?