It was an enormously satisfying moment that 16-year-old Ian Wallace says he will never forget. In a classroom at Annandale High School in May, he watched eight students, all recent immigrants who are learning to speak English, grin in amazement as, one by one, they turned on fully functioning desktop computers that they had just built themselves.
After months of planning, what started out as an idea for his Eagle Scout project had just become a reality, and each student would actually take home and keep the computer they had built.
“The best part was when we got all the computers up and running at one time,” says Ian. “Everyone was proud that they had built these computers themselves, and they were happy they could keep them.”
Ian, a junior at Woodson High School and a member of BSA Troop 1523 in Annandale, had achieved a task that even most adults would find daunting. In less than four hours, he and a team of volunteers taught a diverse group of English-learning students how to assemble desktop computers using salvaged components he had collected through a recycling drive and then showed them how to install software to make those computers operable.
“I wanted to lead an Eagle project that didn’t involve landscaping,” explains Ian. “I wanted to do my own thing, and I’ve always been interested in computers.” Thinking the endeavor could benefit recent immigrants, he approached longtime neighbor and educator Meredith Hedrick, who chairs the English for Speakers of Other Languages Department at Annandale High School.
Hedrick suggested adding an educational component to the project. So after collecting donated computers, Ian planned a one-day computer-building workshop. He enlisted school faculty to serve as translators and asked fellow Scouts to serve as technical support. Hedrick identified eight students hailing from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Sierra Leone who could benefit from the experience.
By day’s end, the students began pulling out their cellphones to share photos of their lives in the homelands they had so recently left. “We got to know each other better,” says Hedrick. “There were lots of smiles and giggles, and one student impressed the others when he showed them a photo of himself building motorcycles in his country.”
Sophomore Jeremias Ramirez Baten, from Guatemala, says he will use his computer for school assignments, but he also appreciates having a device for typical teenage activities, such as video games. “Most of my friends are Spanish, so this was a cool opportunity to make friends with people whose primary language is not Spanish,” says Baten, via a translator.
Junior Evelyn Punti Ajanel, also from Guatemala, says she had no computer when she arrived in Virginia in February. “My parents were so surprised because we never had a computer in our house before, and they were proud that I built it with my own hands,” she says.
Ian says the hardest part of the project was disassembling the donated computers and cleaning and refurbishing the components, which he arranged into sets by himself prior to the workshop. “Lots of tiny screws,” he says.
“The participants took away more than a free computer,” says Ian. “They really elevated their skills by learning about the components and how to load the software.” And the people who taught the workshop? “I hope we all took away the desire to learn more about our own heritage,” says Ian, “and to learn a second language.”