"I just finished the first few days of college and it's so exciting to know I've really begun this journey," says Coral Almazan, proudly wearing the beanie given to new students at Houston Christian University during orientation. "I'm so fortunate to say that thanks to the hotspot from T-Mobile, I was able to complete high school, and then I completed an associate degree in cybersecurity, and now here I am studying criminal justice at a university. It's so crazy to think just a few years ago I was home alone with nothing but my laptop and a hotspot to do it!"
As we head into the last months of 2023, it’s becoming obvious that almost four years since COVID forced students into fully remote education, and later for many into a hybrid model, that the students who had just started high school at that time are now starting college. It’s a concept that should give everyone pause. Students who were previously focused on SATs, college decisions and proms were suddenly in 2020 thrust into a completely different high school experience. Many faced barriers that seemed insurmountable to graduating in the same secure standing they expected. Coral, a high school sophomore at the time in Houston was one of those students.
"Just a few years ago I was in the scariest unknowns thanks to COVID," she says. "But I was ranked 27th out of my entire graduating class, which is an accomplishment for me! I never would've thought that I would land so high."
Coral has been in contact with us for weeks sharing her story as one of the students that received support through T-Mobile’s Project 10Million. The program is a $10.7 billion nationwide initiative aimed at helping to close the digital divide in education by offering free internet connectivity and mobile hotspots to up to 10 million eligible student households.
"I didn't think I would ever set foot into a physical campus again," she says. "There were some really uncertain moments but I'm just so grateful and excited for what the future holds now. I'm not just the first one in my family to graduate high school, but to also receive an associate's college degree and go to a university!"
Parents can sign up their eligible child through Project 10Million, or the program also offers options for qualified schools and school districts, including free and heavily subsidized data plans as well as access to affordable laptops and tablets. By the end of 2022, the company provided $4.8 billion in services and connected more than 5.3 million students across the U.S. through Project 10Million and its other education initiatives.
Coral says when she and the 260 students in her school first received the hotspot, she wasn’t sure exactly what it even was.
"I remember emailing my teachers and saying, 'Hey, what is this?'," she says. "And they explained, 'It's a hotspot, like the one you already have built into your phone, except it's free and it's powerful!' I didn't think much of it until the internet we had stopped working. And that's when I realized I had such an important resource."
Though school districts scrambled to provide support and got creative with expanding technology access during the pandemic’s onset, reports estimated that between 9 million and 12 million U.S. students still lacked adequate internet access at home for remote learning in 2021. Whether because they had no internet or an unsustainable connectivity option for the amount of work they were doing online, it wasn’t enough. This is exactly the issue Coral says was immediately addressed by her hotspot.
Coral said their spotty home internet service slowed down when she and her three siblings needed to be online working. But with the hotspot, she had a dependable way to connect to the internet.
"The possibilities were endless," she says. "With the hotspot, we were able to complete our own work on our own time at a pace that we felt comfortable with. It solved a whole bunch of problems in my home."
Coral says though at first she didn’t understand what a student could do with 100GB of data, she quickly learned it’s enough for so many things like 140 hours of streaming school videos, or 320 hours of online virtual learning, or 5,000 hours of internet research, or 200 hours of online college test prep. And she says the ease at which the hotspot worked was key. The device comes with a quick start guide that walks you through the setup process. Once the hotspot is turned on and connects, the line is activated on the T-Mobile network and the student household is ready to get online, just like a normal Wi-Fi connection.
"Knowing that I'm the first person ever in my entire ancestry to obtain a college associate's degree, it really struck me that family members before me couldn't even reach the accomplishments I've experienced," she says. "People in my community, people that I went to high school with, we aren't the most fortunate kind. It just made me feel really good that we have the ability to still continue to do our work and hopefully in the future more people hear about the hotspot so they can excel. I'm setting a higher expectation, a higher standard within my community, within my family, within myself."
The ways students learn, both in person and virtually, are still being felt today. It’s why T-Mobile continues its efforts to reach out and invite school districts or parent/guardians to apply. Coral says that the application her school district submitted to qualify, and ultimately was approved for with Project 10Million, changed her and her classmates’ lives forever. She also says she’s proud to be sharing her story during Cybersecurity Awareness Month with a degree in cybersecurity in hand thanks much in part to the connectivity she had from the hotspot that allowed her to continue her education online.
"I believe that the hotspot was a very lucky thing to have within my possession," she says. "Seeing that even now things are still virtual, that there's so much less paper and pen, and most everything is done on your computer, it makes me feel a little worried for students because though they might not be going through COVID the same way I did, they could still be struggling with their internet connection. They could still struggle with finding reliable solutions. My hope is that my story makes others aware of this program so students can use the same resources I did and do even better than I did! The hotspot wasn't just for me. The hotspot wasn't just for my family. It wasn't just for my school. Everybody deserves a chance to succeed just as I did."