With the digital divide looming large in the wake of the COVID-19 public health emergency, Mercer County Community College (MCCC), through a partnership with TDI Connect, is supplying free computers to economically-disadvantaged students who otherwise might be unable to complete their studies.

“The technology gap is real, and at no time has that been more evident than during this current public health emergency,” said MCCC President Dr. Jianping Wang. “As educators, it is our responsibility to give our students the tools they need to succeed, which is more important now than ever. Thanks to our partnership with TDI, we can make that happen.”

TDI Connect (formerly the Trenton Digital Initiative), is an all-volunteer organization that is part of United Way of Greater Mercer County. The organization refurbishes computers and laptops donated by companies and schools, and distributes the computers in collaboration with Trenton non-profits to individuals and groups who do not currently have internet access.

In less than a year, more than 200 computers have been distributed to MCCC students. When the COVID crisis began, 30 free computers were available for Mercer students and all were spoken for within a few days. TDI volunteers are working to replenish the supply, which is growing due to the transition of all college classes to remote instruction amid COVID-19 restrictions.

Due to restrictions on travel and public gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, MCCC moved all face-to-face classes to remote platforms for the remainder of the spring semester. On March 13 the college moved all administrative operations to remote platforms, with employees delivering services remotely, including admissions, enrollment, advising, and financial aid consultation, among other services. And the closure of the physical campuses means the closure of libraries and computer labs – an important resource for students without home computers or internet access.

Making digital resources available, thus bridging the technology gap, is the primary goal of TDI, said Mark Iorio, TDI Advisory Board chair. That is especially important during the current pandemic, he said.

“Our partnership with Mercer County Community College provides students with a computer, and will aid in their success throughout their college careers,” Iorio said. “This program has positively impacted the lives of dozens of MCCC students, and we are delighted to work alongside Dr. Wang, the administration, and the faculty.”

Qualifying for the program is relatively simple: students must have a grade point average of at least 2.0 and demonstrate financial need. In addition, TDI, through a partnership with Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, can offer qualifying individuals high-speed internet access for only $9.95 a month.

Iorio said that over the past year, MCCC has donated more than 800 outdated computers to TDI as the college updated its classrooms and computer labs. The computers are then refurbished by volunteers for distribution to the community. That means more families are now connected, and thus much better equipped to function during the pandemic, when most individuals have been working, studying, and even shopping from home.

Mercer students who have benefitted run the gamut, from traditional-age college students to non-traditional students with work and family obligations. Each student has a unique set of challenges, Wang said, and it is MCCC’s goal to provide students the resources required for success.

“It is our responsibility to remove as many obstacles as possible and provide the best educational experience possible for our students,” Wang said. “We know the dreams are there. It is our job to help make them a reality.”