Ten years ago, Alyssa Reyna never imagined she would be where she is today - a junior at The University of Texas-Pan American who plans to pursue a master's in public administration after graduation. She credits Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) for showing her that higher education opportunities beyond high school were possible, even for someone from a small town like Monte Alto, Texas.
As part of the first cohort of GEAR UP students that began the program in 2000, Reyna said the program changed her life.
"GEAR UP not only opened the door for me, it let me know what was behind the door," she said. "GEAR UP taught me that college was a tool to help you succeed in life and to better yourself."
A press conference was held at UTPA Sept. 24 to celebrate National GEAR UP Day 2009 and to commemorate the 10 years of student success stories similar to Reyna's.
GEAR UP is designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education, and provides six-year grants to states and partnerships to provide services at high-poverty middle and high schools.
UTPA Interim President Charles A. Sorber welcomed GEAR UP staff members and students from across the Rio Grande Valley to the event and praised both UTPA and Region One GEAR UP for their success.
"We are proud of our students and of the leadership that has helped this program mature and be the quality program that it is," Sorber said.
Executive Director of the Region One Education Service Center Jack Damron also spoke at the event and talked about the strong partnership with Region One and UTPA.
"What a great effect two GEAR UP programs can have when they work hand in hand," Damron said. "Together we can do great things. Together we have done great things. And, together we will continue to do great things."
Damron said GEAR UP is changing the way students and parents in the Valley think in regard to getting an education.
"We are altering a portion of that culture, which is the desire to see more and more of our children go on to college, and in many cases go on to college outside of the Valley, although, we have wonderful institutions of higher education available to our students locally," Damron said.
In a geographic area from Port Isabel to Zapata, UTPA and Region One GEAR UP serve 44 high schools and nearly 18,000 students.
Dr. Martha Cantu, director of UTPA GEAR UP, said approximately 60 percent of students in the first GEAR UP cohort transitioned into a post-secondary setting.
"This is no small accomplishment," Cantu said. "The state average of high school graduates transitioning to college was only 41 percent of Hispanic students."
UTPA GEAR UP is the second largest grant award in the nation and serves 9,000 students in 22 high schools in the Rio Grande Valley. Region One Education Service Center GEAR UP is the third largest grant award in the nation and serves 8,900 students in 22 high schools.
Tina Atkins, director of Region One GEAR UP, said the program has partnered with business and industry icons and also sponsored thousands of students, teachers and parents for UTPA's Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week which is scheduled for Sept. 27-Oct. 3 at the UTPA campus.
"HESTEC exposes the constituency of the Rio Grande Valley to cutting-edge technology in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields," Atkins said.
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa praised the GEAR UP programs in a video message that was aired during the press conference.
"We have seen the power and effect of this federal education program in South Texas," he said. "With our first generation of GEAR UP partnerships, we have seen high school graduation rates and college preparedness soar for GEAR UP students."
Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia signed a proclamation that was presented at the press conference which declared Sept. 18 National GEAR UP Day.
For more information about UTPA GEAR UP, call 956/292-7501.