Back in 1996 or so, Internet was via modem (tens of kbits per second…) And the initial use of computers was mostly to write assignments for early university courses.
In fact back then we barely have personal computers at home. When in the mid 90s we put our hands on some, we basically just sent emails each other (perhaps it was also cost effective, since flat call plans did not exist, and the information density of an email could have been larger than that of a call), as we did not know many other email users.
Machines available at the university, and accessible to students were very few. We were lucky enough that in those days we run a student group (it was called Tellus) kindly supported by the university (but ultimately just thanks to the kindness and availability of the department secretaries) with a little office and… A personal computer. Some yellowish 386 or 486, discarded after an upgrade, but fully working, and equipped with MS Windows 3.1.
In that period Linux distributions were starting to be available as CD-ROMs attached to computer magazines. Thus we discovered Unix, without really knowing what it was. The curiosity costed a few times the master boot record of my own machine.
Linux availability matched with the PC provided by the university resulted - quite obviously - in our own attempt to install it on that machine.
In no time the information that a bunch of students wanted to tinker with Unix reached the chief system administrator of the university, who probably reacted with a mix of concern and amusement. Instead of forbidding the exercise (potentially dangerous for the network. At that time many were still running unsecure telnet…), he offered/imposed us a short course on unix, before attempting to do anything on a network-connected computer.
He gave the course himself, I guess for the first time to geek undergraduates from the italian analogue to a community college.
I don’t recall the details, but it was the begining of little joys (and frustrations) that accompanied each of us for the decades to come. For some that experience actually opened professional paths, many years after. For most, it was a technical company and a slightly different way of thinking and performing computational tasks.
As a note: Back in the late 1990s in Pescara there was a bit of a linux/unix/hacker movement. I recall the friendly support / courses freely offered by Metro Olografix, as well as Linux nstallation parties. Few Linux User Groups (LUGs) were also starting to appear across the region.
It is probably since then, that I tend to appreciate system administrators more than - say - academics.