Bronx Virtual Reality Academy Brings Tech Skills to Underserved Community

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HOST INTRO: New York’s Silicon Alley may be extending into the Bronx. A new virtual reality academy is the latest program designed to train Bronx residents for careers in tech. Bronx leaders see the academy as part of a larger effort to bring jobs and new skills to the historically underserved borough. Devin Briski has the story.

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BRISKI 1: At Grand Concourse in the Bronx, City University of New York has a new roller coaster. Or at least, something that feels like one. Twenty-seven-year-old Bronx native Albert Abreu puts on special glasses and slippers, then steps into a virtual reality cube.

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Roller coaster ambient. (0:05)

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BRISKI 2: Abreu squats in a skiing position to avoid falling down. The 3D images portray a twisting track on a Western red rock landscape. A new training program will teach aspiring entrepreneurs like Abreu to build virtual reality scenarios. Abreu says these sort of opportunities haven’t been available in the past.

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ABREU 1: These are things we read about in Bloomberg, you see them on CNN. I used to see them as far, like in California, or in another place but never here. And for it to be here, it’s exciting! (0:11)

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BRISKI 3: The goal of the academy is to make Bronx’s growing tech scene inclusive of neighborhood residents. Ronald Bergmann is in charge of technology services at CUNY.

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BERGMANN 1: The Bronx is experiencing resurgences in the arts, in the media, and in technology. What we’re trying to do is create opportunities for CUNY students and local residents to be able to become coders and designers. (0:14)

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BRISKI 4: The program joins a growing list of efforts in the Bronx to prepare local residents for careers in tech. One of these is MetaBronx, an incubator that helps local women and people of color start companies. Founder Miguel Sanchez grew up in the neighborhood. For him, the mission is a personal one.

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SANCHEZ 1: There’s this understanding that we’re not supposed to be in this field that I wanted to change. So part of my thinking was I need to either help train people in tech, or give them that first opportunity once they are trained. (0:17)

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BRISKI 5: Sanchez was one of very few people in his neighborhood to find his way to computer science.

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SANCHEZ 2: My parents brought home one day a stolen computer when I was 10 years old. They bought it off the truck. They put it in my room, and I had to figure it out. (0:09)

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BRISKI 6: Sanchez went on to study graphic design and animation at community college. This was during the first dot com boom. But as a young man from the Bronx, his options were limited.

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SANCHEZ 3: As I always say, in the hood, there’s only two ways out: music or sports. So the connections I had was in the music industry. So one of the record labels was making a dot com. I jumped at the chance to go work at that place and I learned about how to make websites. (0:18)

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BRISKI 7: At the first few companies he worked at, Sanchez says he was the only software engineer who wasn’t white.

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SANCHEZ 4: I would go to agencies and they would send me to the mailroom. And I was a developer! (0:06)

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BRISKI 8: His goal now is to help young Bronx natives develop skills that they need to make it in tech. Sanchez says it’s important for this to happen now. Bronx residents have seen how gentrification has displaced communities in other parts of the city. And real estate prices are beginning to shoot up in the Bronx too. Sanchez says tech skills give local residents the ability to stay.

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SANCHEZ 5: Look, this is gonna happen whether you like it or not. There’s one way to make sure you are able to stay here. And that is all within your power if you get into this field, and now—as soon as humanly possible. (0:16)

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((Fade in roller coaster ambient))

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BRISKI 9: Back at the VR academy, Albert Abreu managed not to fall down while riding the virtual reality roller coaster.

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((Laughter))

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Abreu is applying to the academy. In April, he could be part of a wave of Bronx natives pursuing a career in technology’s newest frontier. Devin Briski, Columbia Radio News.

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