The University of Texas-Pan American GEAR UP program was awarded a grant in 2005 for $42 million to implement programs that educate Valley students and parents on the importance of education beyond high school. Five years later, the program received special recognition at the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP) and GEAR UP Annual Conference in Washington, D. C. July 18-21.
Heraclio Gonzalez, a senior at Weslaco East High School, Delfina Cedillo, a Mission High School senior and Janie Rodriguez, a GEAR UP parent volunteer from Santa Rosa High School, represented UTPA's GEAR UP program this summer at the conference.
Gonzalez and Cedillo were honored for their dedication to GEAR UP by being named 2010 Youth Leadership Summit Scholars. They are two of only 30 students selected nationwide from 390 nominees. Martha Cantu, director of UTPA GEAR UP, said having two students chosen is an honor, since only one student per grant is usually selected.
"It is truly remarkable to hear word from Washington, D.C., that two students were selected from the Rio Grande Valley," Cantu said. "These two students are very successful in assisting our GEAR UP program staff. We are very proud of them."
Both students have been active in the GEAR UP program since seventh grade. They worked at getting the college readiness message out to other students on their campus with peer to peer mentoring.
"I believe the UTPA Gear Up Program is the perfect college awareness program...I have learned that as a team and working together we can make a difference," Cedillo said. "I hope to bring back from the summit other methods we can implement in our programs here at home."
Cedillo and Gonzalez agree that the GEAR UP program has opened many doors of opportunities by presenting them with the possibility of a college education, the financial aid available to them and the different routes they can take to pick the right college.
"The GEAR UP program has made me realize that there is a great world waiting for me out there and the only way to get it is through a college education," Gonzalez said. "I used to get the feeling that college was out of reach for me because my family didn't have the financial resources, not even for our meals, but GEAR UP has changed my mind about college and made me realize that I am able to do anything to obtain it."
At the Youth Leadership Summit, the 30 students discussed the issues and barriers facing students and affecting their decision on college and presented their findings to an audience of 3,000 made up of peers, educators and parents.
Rodriguez is one of only five parents selected to attend the NCCEP/GEAR UP Annual Conference as a recipient of the Parent Leadership Award. She has been a parent volunteer for 11 years with the Santa Rosa GEAR UP program. This type of parent award is the first for the Rio Grande Valley and for the small school district of Santa Rosa.
"Janie is the person we can call if we need something. She gets everything done quick," said Birdie Zamora, liaison for Santa Rosa GEAR UP. "We feel that she got this award because of her involvement and everything she has done for us. She is well deserving."
Rodriguez was nominated for her dedication to informing parents on the benefits of higher education for their children. She is a member of the Las Platicas Academy. As a platicadora, a parent volunteer, Rodriguez receives 15 hours of training to provide mentoring to parents. She also participates in Football Fridays, where she attends football games to give parents information on GEAR UP meetings, events and student activities, as well as college trips, admission processes, and financial aid. Last year, Rodriguez also put together a Thanksgiving Appreciation Dinner for GEAR UP parents.
"We count on Janie, actually all of our parent volunteers for everything," said Sandra Corpus, GEAR UP coordinator for Santa Rosa. "With everything Janie and our parent volunteers do we have seen an increase in parent involvement, which is what we need to get our students to college."
The GEAR UP grant at UTPA is the second largest grant in the nation and serves more than 9,000 students in 22 Valley schools, following them from seventh grade to their senior year. The grant offers services such as tutoring, mentoring, college field trips, technology, services for parents, training for their teachers, assistance in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and preparing for the American College Testing program and Texas Higher Education Assessment exams.
"The GEAR UP program, funded by a federal grant provided by the Department of Education, is geared toward instilling in these kids the skills and motivation to graduate high school and enroll in college," said Cindy Valdez, associate director of Academic Services. "We offer different services yearly to work with our students and parents to ensure that they are ready to succeed in college."
The grant, now in its final year, has assisted school districts such as Santa Rosa, Mission and Weslaco to create awareness of higher education and purchase resources students need to be successful. Cantu said 67 percent of the first grant cohorts graduated from high school in 2006 and transitioned into a post-secondary setting. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reports that 41 percent of those students were Hispanic.
"We will be reapplying next year to the Department of Education for a third cohort to begin in the fall of 2011," Cantu said. "We have a proven track record of success in both high school and in college and we anticipate full funding for the university."