In July and August 2019, Austin Barajas and a team of students traveled to Ghana to install 550 computers in 25 schools as part of The Five North Project. The main goal was to provide disadvantaged students access to reliable computers.
“Many schools in West Africa teach computer education on a chalkboard,” says Austin, an Alma College senior from Holland. “Teachers will meticulously draw diagrams or use written materials to explain how a computer functions or how to use a computer. The purpose of the Five North Project is to provide resources to schools so that their students can have hands-on experience with technology that will make learning about computers easier.”
Austin is one of the founders for this project, which started in April 2018, along with Madelynn Carter and Roland Amarteifio from the University of Michigan.
“We often talked about social issues and felt that we needed to take action and start a project with purpose,” Austin says. “We explored different ideas, and eventually, based on the resources available to us and our skills, landed on providing technology to schools. This led to the creation of Five North.”
The organization obtains used computers from corporations, businesses, schools and organizations in West Michigan as they are being phased out. The Five North Project receives its funding from business competitions, donations and optiMize, a student-led organization at the University of Michigan.
The team that traveled to Ghana included the three founders along with Alma College student volunteers Thomas Anglin (Millersburg senior), Garrett Heaney (New Baltimore senior), Maria Ruedisueli (Marshall junior) and Lea Ziolkowski (Bruce Township senior), as well as Amy Schartner. The Alma students were supported by funding from the Posey-Global Leadership Fellows Program.
Their mornings would begin at 6 a.m. with breakfast before loading computers and equipment into a vehicle to travel to that day’s two-to-three schools to distribute the materials. A few hours were spent at each location setting up the technology and working with teachers and administrators.
The team would be back to their headquarters around 6 p.m. for dinner and preparing for the next day. At the place they stayed, they would have fun activities for the children, like movies on a projector or playing with glow-sticks.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of the entire community at many of the places we visited,” says Austin. “We were aware that the school administrators were looking forward to receiving computers, but it was very neat to see the excitement of parents and students.
“The trip itself took months of planning, and there were a lot of moving parts involved in making it happen,” says Austin. He was mentored by Mike Jaeger — a Peace Corp volunteer who served in West Africa and was one of Austin’s high school teachers — and Alma College Professor Derick Hulme. Jaeger and Hulme used their own experiences in West Africa to help prepare Austin for complications he might encounter, such as difficulties with the shipping container not being released right away.
“I learned that students do have the power and ability to make positive changes in the world,” says Austin. “We have a duty to not simply talk or learn about issues, but also to innovate and create solutions to the issues that we are passionate about.”
In addition to being the president of The Five North Project on Alma’s campus, Austin is the treasurer of student congress, a resident assistant, and serves on the Alternative Break executive board. After graduation, Austin plans to pursue a Master of Business Administration degree.