By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP News Service
A University of Texas at El Paso program designed to increase the number of low-income students prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education has given more than 300 freshmen a head start on the fall semester at UTEP and El Paso Community College (EPCC).
GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is a 6-year program funded by the Department of Education at UTEP that provides awareness, academic readiness and support to 7,000 students in the Ysleta, El Paso and Socorro Independent School Districts to pursue a college degree.
This summer marks the end of the GEAR UP grant between UTEP and Ysleta Independent School District (YISD). Referred to as GEAR UP PROYECTO M.A.S. (Motivating Aspiring Students), the grant involved nearly 3,000 students from disadvantaged economic or educational circumstances.
Beginning in the seventh grade and continuing through high school, students like Michael Rangel, a civil engineering major at UTEP, have benefited from the tutoring, mentoring and leadership programs that GEAR UP offers to increase college attendance and success.
“I have been with the program since the seventh grade,” recalled Rangel, who graduated from Parkland High School in June. “In high school, they were always there if we needed tutoring or if we needed help to graduate or with college admissions – they would help us. I found it very useful to take advantage of every opportunity that GEAR UP gave us.”
Rangel took advantage of one more opportunity the program offered participants this summer. For the first time, GEAR UP hosted the College Connection program, which provided recent high school graduates from the Ysleta Independent School District with the knowledge and skills to jump-start their freshman year.
The program provided financial support for 327 students’ tuitions to attend the second summer semester at UTEP or EPCC. Additionally, GEAR UP also provided support for books, meals and transportation to make it easier for students to attend school.
“Our idea was to have a group of students start at UTEP or El Paso Community College to mentor them, build up their confidence and to help them navigate through the whole admissions process, which can be intimidating,” said Juliette M. Caire, GEAR UP executive director. “We want to provide a lot of support with the hope that when they do start in the fall, they would be ready because they would already have a taste of what college is like and what to expect. We really try to have them see that a college campus is very much different from a high school campus.”
The College Connection program allowed students to develop a support network, strengthen their academic skills and familiarize themselves with campus. Students also had access to tutors, student mentors and student peer leaders who helped them with their homework and provided encouragement.
Sebastian Quiñones took part in the program because he wanted to ease into University life before he started the fall semester at UTEP. The psychology major relied on his tutor, Alan Reveles, for advice on what classes to take to make sure he’s on the right track.
“If you have trouble knowing what classes to take in the future, we have tutors who are like mentors to help you figure that out,” Quiñones said. “I asked my tutor a lot of questions about psychology and he told me about his experience, and now I’m sure that’s what I want (to study).”
Reveles is a junior at UTEP studying psychology. He tutored 12 students each week during the second summer session.
In addition to assisting students with their academic studies, Reveles also offered them advice on time management and how to balance school with work and a social life.
“I would’ve liked somebody who had just gone through it (to help me),” Reveles said about his first year at UTEP. “There were times that I thought I wasn’t going to get through it, and if somebody would’ve told me, ‘It’s not as hard as you think it is,’ or maybe explained it a little better or simplified it for me in a way that I could understand, it would’ve helped me a lot more. It’s additional support.”
GEAR UP students were selected for the College Connection program if they were exempt from taking the Texas Success Initiative (TSI) assessment in high school. TSI is a program designed to determine if a student is ready for college-level course work in the general areas of reading, writing and mathematics. Students are exempt from the TSI based on their scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills high school exit test.
The program hired a writing instructor to help students with their writing or public speaking projects. Also on the agenda was a series of workshops hosted by Texas Instruments on the UTEP campus where students learned how to use the TI-Nspire graphing calculators, which are used in college-level math courses.
Thanks to the College Connection program, Rangel said he’s excited about the first day of the fall semester at UTEP Aug. 25.
(College is) better than high school,” Rangel said. “For my communication class, I learned how to speak better in front of people. I learned how to organize my essays better. We’re going to have more classes instead of two (during the fall semester), but I think it’ll still be easier. So I’m looking forward to it.”
For information on GEAR UP at UTEP, visit their website.