Maria Yepez Perez.For students who are the first in their family to attend college, the WSU GEAR UP program provides opportunities to further their education in ways they might never have imagined.

“GEAR UP not only set me up for success for college, but I was able to grow as a leader,” said Maria Yepez Perez (’20 Spanish). “Within the program, I was able to take on leadership roles, which helped me increase speaking in public and be a resource for my community. The staff at GEAR UP were not only our mentors setting us up to apply for colleges and universities, but were also our support system as many of us came from different backgrounds.”

GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is a federally-funded program that provides academic support for students in middle school through their first year of post-secondary education. Students benefit from college readiness resources, mentorship, advising, professional development, tutoring, and more.

Recently WSU program received two grants totaling more than $40 million to support two cohorts of students in their quest to attend college and other post-secondary options.

“The WSU Tri-Cities GEAR UP program has been very successful receiving new awards and preparing students for post-secondary opportunities,” said Silvia Clark, WSU Tri-Cities GEAR UP One Vision Partnership director. “I am excited to partner with the same partners we have worked with throughout the last decade and a half. We have enjoyed working with teachers and administrators to make college and post-secondary dreams become a reality for so many students.”

A $20 million grant from One Vision Partnership will support student programs in 13 middle schools and 13 high schools located across 10 districts: Evergreen, Pasco, Kiona Benton, Prosser, Mabton, Finley, Columbia, Clarkston, North Franklin, and Ephrata. The new One Vision Partnership grant marks the first time that the WSU Tri-Cities program will serve the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington.

The second grant, from Harvest of Hope, totals $23 million and will support student program serving 14 middle schools and 12 high schools across nine school districts: College Place, Dayton, Kennewick, Moses Lake, Othello, Prescott, Soap Lake, Touchet, Walla Walla and Warden.

Group shot
Yepez Perez (second from left) with a group of GEAR UP students at WSU Pullman.

Michelle Parvinen, director of the Harvest of Hope WSU Tri-Cities GEAR UP cohort, said working in the GEAR UP program is incredibly rewarding.

“Upon learning what I do for work, people say, ‘Oh, you have a feel good job,’” she said. “I do. Education is the great equalizer. It is also about opening students’ eyes to opportunities beyond what they see in their community and helping them figure out how they can get there.”

Achieving what was initially perceived as impossible
Yepez Perez came to the United States with her family from Mexico at the age of 9 years old. She said she knew the United States had more opportunities, especially for education, but she had never heard the terms “bachelor’s degree,” “master’s degree” “doctorate,” or “juris doctorate” before. She didn’t know that college was an option.

But bound and determined to get the most of her education, she learned English and excelled in school. In middle school, she connected with GEAR UP, which opened many doors, even as an undocumented student.

“When I first heard about college and universities through GEAR UP, I thought that path was not for me due to my immigration status,” she said. “As I continued to attend meetings, I realized college was for me and I belonged, regardless of my immigration status. It would not be easy, but it was not impossible.”

Students in small groups.
GEAR UP students attend a career night event at WSU Tri-Cities.

Rafael De Leon Vela, who currently oversees the Pasco high school sites for GEAR UP, said for many students that would be the first in their family to attend college, and especially for undocumented students, it can be scary to leave home to live and learn miles away. Yepez Perez was no exception. But he was able to work directly with Yepez Perez and her parents to develop plans that would make college obtainable and help break some of the perceived barriers.

“Maria was a young and rising scholar with aspirations to attend WSU,” he said. “Her parents were unsure, but she was capable. I worked them into her plans, sharing resources, introducing them to former students from their neighborhood that attend Chiawana High School, as well as educating them on how to pay for it all … This student went on to earn scholarships, College Assistance Migrant Program dollars and was undocumented. Huge.”

Yepez Perez not only went on to be successful in college, she also returned the favor of working with the WSU Tri-Cities GEAR UP program to help provide support for students just like her. She served as a tutor for GEAR UP’s summer programming.

Yepez Perez recently graduated with her bachelor’s degree from WSU and is now applying to law schools.

“As advice to high school students, be involved in programs like GEAR UP,” she said. “Stay that extra hour after school and join conversations. Even if there is not a seat at the table, bring your own. You will be surprised at the thousands of opportunities that could cross your path. These programs are a privilege to have in high schools. Not every school has a program like GEAR UP.”

Track record of success, even in times of COVID-19
Since its beginnings in 2002, and with the addition of the two new grants, the WSU Tri-Cities GEAR UP program will have served more than 35,000 students.

Screenshot from a video conference.
A student team, called Team Dynamite, participates in a discussion during the GEAR UP Virtual Leadership Retreat. More than 70 students participated in the three-day camp virtually.

Services provided through the program range from direct college advising and mentorship, to tutoring and support for academic courses, to extracurricular programming like summer camps, to help with the financial aid application process and other vital supports for college. The program also offers resources and support for parents of students who aim to attend college.

Amid COVID-19, the program has had to switch many of their methods online, providing access to college readiness supports and strategies through Zoom and other virtual platforms.

“Our site managers are amazingly innovative,” Parvinen said. “They have come up with some great strategies to provide virtual resources and support. They have set up their own Google classrooms and participate virtually in classrooms to provide additional support for the teachers and students.”

Connections with the schools make it possible
Of the 20 school districts that GEAR UP currently serves, dozens of school site managers work directly with the local schools and teachers to provide college ready resources, financial aid support, and others that help make college not only possible, but also so that students become champions of their own success.

“Being able to be a part of students’ growth and making those connections beyond the classroom and surface level to establish a relationship where students become successful is the most rewarding,” said Ryan Engel, a GEAR UP site manager at Kamiakin High School.

Engel remembers working with a student who wanted to attend Columbia Basin College. The student was on-track to qualify for a College Bound Scholarship and attend CBC, but then realized he was missing a credit of geometry that he needed in order to graduate. Engel quickly got him connected with a GEAR UP geometry tutor, who was able to help him successfully complete his packet for geometry on-time for him to walk.

“So many people impact our work on a daily basis with students, from the main office at WSU Tri-Cities, to tutors who are generally college students, to our teachers and our administrators,” Engel said. “All of these people work on all levels to allow GEAR UP within their school districts to really create something that is unique and special for all students and families to really take advantage.”

Jennifer Reyes, a GEAR UP site manager of Warden High School in Warden, Washington, said working with GEAR UP has led to many meaningful relationships with students and staff at her school and always leads to something new and exciting. She said she is elated about the future of the WSU Tri-Cities GEAR UP program.

“I am truly lucky to be able to work and connect with so many students with different backgrounds,” she said. “I am excited for all that is to come.”

For more information about GEAR UP and college pathway opportunities through WSU Tri-Cities, visit tricities.wsu.edu/outreach.

Top photo: Maria Yepez Perez wears her WSU graduation regalia stole.

By Meagan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities