In her own words: 2022 ISP Scholar - Shubhika Agarwal

2022 ISP Scholar Shubhika Agarwal outside

As an ISP Scholar, Shubhika Agarwal is appointed with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Office of Broadband. Her work is vital in identifying and evaluating the broadband needs of the communities of Illinois. Her skills are instrumental in data analytics and mapping, along with ensuring compliance for our communities. Shubhika shared some thoughts with me about the ISP program, and her work so far.

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Why did you apply for the Illini Science Policy Program?

I applied for the Illini Science Policy Fellowship because it felt like the perfect start for me to understand how policymaking and implementation work in the real world. With my degree in Urban Planning, I have always been curious about wanting to follow the implementation of plans in communities. And my work with the Illinois Office of Broadband and Office of Illinois Works at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity have truly allowed me to contribute to the planning and implementation processes of broadband planning and workforce development in the construction industry.

Tell us a bit about what you hope to accomplish as a result of being a 2022 Scholar.

Being a 2022 Scholar, I hope to efficiently contribute to the efforts being made by the Offices that I am working with. I hope to find my place in the policy implementation process and build on my skills. By the end of the fellowship, I hope to create resources and tools that are useful for communities and stakeholders in planning for their broadband and construction workforce futures.

Tell us a bit about the project you are working on for your host agency.

At the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, I have been working with the Illinois Office of Broadband and the Office of Illinois Works. At the Illinois Office of Broadband, I am assisting eight Illinois Connected Communities Rd II (since September 2021) and six Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Planning Program (starting February 2022) participant communities with survey format preparation, data analysis, and broadband mapping to identify target areas and evaluate the broadband needs in their communities. In addition, I am helping make our Illinois Broadband Mapping application comprehensive and accessible to all audiences. I have also had the opportunity to share the Illinois Broadband Mapping Tool with various stakeholders at Broadband webinars organized by the Office in partnership with the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society and the University of Illinois Extension.

At the Office of Illinois Works, I am tasked with monitoring compliance of state agencies with the Illinois Works Apprenticeship Initiative that requires eligible state-funded construction projects to have 10% of the project hours completed by apprentices. The Illinois Works Act aims to increase the representation of minority communities & women in the construction industry. I am designing dashboards in Smartsheets to get real-time statistics on the level of compliance of state agencies with the Initiative and collaborating to ensure they have all the resources to get to higher levels of compliance. Additionally, I have mapped the construction apprenticeship programs and the Illinois Works-funded Pre-Apprenticeship Programs in the state and continue to update Illinois Works projects by the county to map demand-supply gaps in the state and identify target areas where future efforts and resources must be concentrated.

Tell us a bit about the project you are working with your Extension Mentor?

With my Extension Mentor, Nancy Ouedraogo, I have been working on reviewing the Broadband Mapping resources of all states in the country. The learnings from other states will serve as a basis to enhance and make the Illinois Broadband mapping application comprehensive. At the same time, we hope to make the findings available to the public in the form of a website that will make broadband mapping accessible for all audiences and can serve as a platform to encourage collaboration between stakeholders across different states.

What makes the work you are doing as an ISP Scholar meaningful to you? 

When I am part of the Illinois Connected Communities meetings, it is incredibly satisfying for me to see that communities in Illinois are looking for all the help they can get to get broadband in their communities. Our program has enabled that and the communities truly appreciate the data, mapping, broadband updates and resources, and expertise in broadband planning provided by the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society and the Illinois Office of Broadband. Furthermore, to see that the progress being made by the previous round of participants makes me realize the difference that the state’s efforts have on access to broadband in communities across Illinois.

What is one thing that you have learned since becoming an ISP Scholar that has made an impression on your transition from graduate student to career individual?

I have realized that communication that can be understood by all audiences is incredibly important. Broadband, Construction, and working with the state have all been new to me and I realize how it took me a while to get used to the jargon and the terminologies. Now, as I am so much familiar with it, I constantly have to remind myself how the communities I am working with might not be aware or may have a different understanding of certain terms. So, I have to make sure all my communication is clear and easily comprehendible.

Why is/are the issue(s) important to the communities with which you are working?

The issue of inadequate broadband access has come to the forefront much more since the pandemic when a lot of learning, work, community interaction, health, and many other services had to be offered online.  From our meeting with communities, we continue to see how broadband is affecting the development and real estate values in places. Moreover, everyone at home needs to connect to the internet, have their own devices to log on to work or school, and the internet should be able to simultaneously support all this activity—this is now the new normal. The internet is more than just for entertainment. This is what makes it so important for communities.

In terms of the Illinois Works efforts, the construction industry in the state today has a large percentage of the retiring population and so it is important that we create a pipeline of workers who can meet the development needs of the future and at the same time encourage diversity efforts in the industry.

Who is impacted by the issue(s) you are working on?

As I mentioned earlier, ever since COVID-19, everything has a virtual component added to it today and it is becoming increasingly impossible to sustain without access to a reliable internet connection. So, broadband very much is a necessity today, and our efforts through the Illinois Office of Broadband cater towards enhancing the access, adoption, and use of broadband in communities across Illinois.

With the Illinois Works Program, effective enforcement of the Act can surely help create a pipeline of well-trained, young professionals in the construction industry with greater diversity. The new opportunities in construction due to an increase in funding for broadband infrastructure deployment can also help the Illinois Works initiative and we can have a diverse workforce being trained and working on these infrastructure projects.

What is the most unexpected thing about this program so far?

It is not entirely unexpected, but I am always in awe of seeing just how many parts are in play with all this work. So many partners, resources, organizations, people, interests, and so much more go into making these wonderful programs a success. And I am so glad I can contribute to these causes.

If you could do one thing through this program and think “Wow, I did that,” what would you like it to be?

It would be a wow moment for me if I can pull off my broadband mapping website and create automated dashboards for Illinois Works Apprenticeship Initiative monitoring as these will be incredibly useful even after my time at the organization, and such a contribution will be extremely satisfying to me. Moreover, if my broadband mapping website could in fact lead to collaborative efforts between states, that would be the best thing.

More information about the Illini Science Policy Program is available on our website.Keep reading to learn more about Shubhika's colleagues in the of 2022 ISP Scholar Class.

The Illini Science Policy Program is supported by University of Illinois Extension through the Illinois' Office of the Provost Investment for Growth program, participating host offices, the University of Illinois Office of Government Relations, and PepsiCo.