Providing internet access for students

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, July 1, 2020

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Keeping up with online schoolwork is going to be a lot easier this summer and from now on for the children in several families thanks to the efforts of four Longwood University alumni from the Class of 2016.

The young men — Theta Chi fraternity brothers at Longwood — knew the lack of access to internet service had made it extremely difficult for many children to keep up with their studies after schools closed due to the pandemic.

So they decided to do something.

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“We are all really close friends and are always in communication,” alum Bharani “Barney” Sankar, now a senior associate at KPMG in Chicago, said. “One night we were talking, sharing stories of the impact this has had on our network, and we immediately decided that we wanted to do our part, even if it was something small.”

Their plan was to launch a fundraiser, redeploying a clothing line they had created several years earlier to sell sweatshirts with the group’s distinctive sunflower design and Beauty in the Struggle (BITS) brand.

In just a month, they sold 65 sweatshirts. They added $250 of their own money to the profit and purchased eight WiFi routers, which work like a cellphone hotspot, and paired them with prepaid data cards. The setup allows recipients to connect to the Internet so they can complete their online assignments.

The group hopes the technology will help the students stay on track academically during the summer months, Daishan Johnson said. Johnson is an alum working toward a Ph.D. in exercise science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

He added that when school starts again in the fall, parents won’t have to worry if there is homework that requires internet access.

The success of the project has inspired the group to expand their community service efforts beyond the current pandemic, Sankar said, adding that the Beauty in the Struggle brand is more than just clothing — it is a way of positively facing the challenges of life.

“To me, BITS is feeling confident that, even though you may be going through something tough, you will come out of it with something to be proud of,” he said.

The group is in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit organization in Virginia, alum Conner Niver said. Niver is a Richmond resident who works as a location assistant for CBS/Apple TV’s “Swagger” drama series.

The group is also applying for a grant that would fund the production of promotional content for the new organization by film students at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Eventually, they want to establish a college scholarship for minority students.

“Our ability to create opportunities for these eight families warms my heart,” alum Wil Miles said.

In his job as a health and physical education teacher at Powhatan Middle School and the head varsity boys soccer coach at Powhatan High School, Miles has seen students struggling to adjust.

“The success of the initial project has helped me see that making a positive impact is possible, and I am excited to be a part of this group heading into the future,” he said.