More than 6,900 middle school students from all over the Rio Grande Valley attended the annual GEAR UP Kick-Off Conference Tuesday and Wednesday, May 14-15, featuring Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa, Tex-Mex sensation Roberto Pulido, motivational speaker "Happy" Guerrero, UTPA Ballet Folklorico and the UTPA Cheerleaders.
The UTPA GEAR UP Program organized the conference to kick off the summer and fall semesters and celebrate the end of the spring semester.
"Our purpose is to follow every student and make sure they enroll in ninth grade," she added. "We want to get the kids geared up."
Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo, provost/ vice president for Academic Affairs, and James R. Langabeer, vice president for Business Affairs, welcomed school district representatives, teachers and students from Brownsville, La Joya, McAllen, Mission, Rio Grande City, Santa Rosa, Donna, Raymondville, Lasara and Weslaco to the two-day event at the Fieldhouse.
"We are gathered here because we want to get students more aware of the University and the opportunities it can afford them," said Arévalo. "We want to tell students that a career is an attainable goal, that their academic career does not end after high school."
Joe Morales, Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation general manager, spoke Tuesday about the importance of higher education, followed by Judge Roy Valdez, 13th Court of Appeals chief justice, who spoke Wednesday.
"We want to impress upon kids that education is the great equalizer," said Valdez. "Kids have to be aware that the sky is the limit."
Edinburg City Manager John Milford, a long-time supporter of higher education and youth activities, attended Wednesday on behalf of Ochoa.
"Each of you will make a difference in your cities, your communities and your families. Each of you can make a difference in the Rio Grande Valley," Milford told cheering students.
The U.S Department of Education awarded nearly $28 million to UTPA through GEAR UP to promote higher education among middle school students.
Enacted in 1998, GEAR UP encourages partnerships between high poverty schools, universities, community organizations and the business sector to better serve low-income students. More than 450,000 students benefit from the program nationwide.