A Rio Grande Valley parent volunteer and two high school students will represent The University of Texas-Pan American's GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) at the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP) and GEAR UP Annual Conference in San Francisco, Calif. July 17.
Elsa De Alejandro, a single mother and GEAR UP parent volunteer representing the Weslaco Independent School District (W.I.S.D), is one of only five parents selected nationwide as a 2011 recipient of the NCCEP and GEAR UP Parent Leadership Award.
Students Erika Davila from Weslaco East High School, and Luis Correa from Johnny G. Economedes High School in Edinburg, were two of only 30 students selected nationwide to attend the NCCEP/GEAR UP Conference Youth Leadership Summit. Both have actively served as GEAR UP Action Council members with UTPA's GEAR UP project since the seventh grade and are 2011 high school graduates.
"I'm so excited to have the opportunity of being one of five parents nationwide to represent GEAR UP and especially our Weslaco and UTPA program," said De Alejandro. "We're all going to get to share ideas...and make plans for a better future for our students. Everything I learn I'm excited to bring back and implement it with our volunteers and our program."
For 17 years, De Alejandro took it upon herself, along with the help of other UTPA GEAR UP project volunteers, known as "Platicadoras," to host meetings and activities that would inform parents and students - elementary through high school - about the advantages of going to college and what to expect during the college application process. They also organized mini conferences throughout the school year to assist parents and high school students in filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form and scholarship applications.
De Alejandro and her daughter Selena Briones, 18, who has been an active student volunteer with W.I.S.D. and UTPA's GEAR UP project as an Action Council member, will inform other parents and educators during a presentation at the conference about meetings, programs and activities she and other UTPA GEAR UP volunteers organize and host.
"Presenting with my daughter is going to be a beautiful experience," said De Alejandro. "She always participates and is aware of everything we do with GEAR UP, she enjoys helping others. In reality, she is going to college because of what she has learned from the GEAR UP program."
Briones graduated 21st in her class with honors from Weslaco East High School and will be attending UTPA in the fall.
"Having a parent represent our program at national conference is huge. It really shows that our program is doing a good job and that at campuses our parents are taking possession of the GEAR UP program," said Cynthia Valdez, co-interim director of the UTPA GEAR UP project. "Our parent receiving the award has demonstrated extraordinary leadership to the program and her community."
Many Valley students have gone on to graduate high school and continue their education at a college or university because of the UTPA GEAR UP project, Valdez said. She indicated that 64 percent of students from their first GEAR UP cohort immediately enrolled in a post secondary institution the fall semester after high school graduation.
"GEAR UP is that extra push, support and motivation that kids need to get them from high school to college," said Valdez.
Statistics from the current GEAR UP cohort report show that 97 percent of students say they would like to pursue a two-or four-year degree, while 89 percent of students have already applied to at least one university, Valdez said.
"Parental involvement has a big impact on the number of students interested in going to college," said Maria Flores, GEAR UP family and community outreach coordinator. "Having the GEAR UP program and hosting monthly meetings for parents lets them know where their child should be in the college process."
Davila and Correa said they never expected to be selected, but are honored to represent their schools, the University and the Rio Grande Valley at such a prestigious conference.
"I had to see the email for myself. My dad was proud of me and I was so excited," Davila said. "I'm really looking forward to learning how to be a better leader and learning more about myself at the conference. I'm going to take everything I possibly can from it and learn how to continue encouraging others to go to college."
Davila graduated from Weslaco East High School with honors from the Distinguished Achievement Program, and as a Texas Scholar and National Honor Society and Science National Honor Society member. She ranked number 10 in her graduating class and will be attending Texas Tech University in Lubbock in the fall to major in biology and study pre-med.
"GEAR UP always instilled in me that post secondary education was not only a possibility, but a reality. I had all the tools I need to get to college, but GEAR UP gave me the direction," said Davila. " I am the young lady I am today because of GEAR UP."
Correa graduated from Johnny G. Economedes High School under the Distinguished Achievement Program and as a Texas Scholar with more than 40 college credit hours on his transcript. He was also in the top 10 percent of class and received a Certificate of Achievement, a University Interscholastic League Scholar and a National Honor Society award. Correa is planning to attend Wabash College in Indiana in the fall to study industrial psychology.
"I wasn't expecting to get selected for the conference, but when I found out, I was astounded and speechless," said Correa. "For once I felt optimistic about myself and thought if I was able to accomplish this, then I can do so much more. This is going to be an experience I will never forget."
Correa said the GEAR UP program has helped him grow as a student and have more confidence in himself. He wants to thank the program and his coordinator by continuing to teach other students about the possibilities of college. Correa described this as his way of paying them back for all their help.
"I want to bring my entire experience back with me and show younger generations that anything is possible," said Correa. "GEAR UP has done so much for me...and I'm ready for the new chapter in my life: college."
The UTPA GEAR UP grant is funded $7 million per year, making it the second largest grant in the nation. The program serves close to 9,000 students in 22 Rio Grande Valley schools. Following students from seventh grade to their senior year, the grant offers students services in tutoring, rigorous curricula, mentoring, college field trips, summer camps, math and science camps, career exploration, college admissions counseling, assistance in completing FAFSA forms and preparing for the American College Testing (ACT) program, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Texas Higher Education Assessment exams. Parents and teachers also receive extensive training in the student college preparation process.
UTPA's GEAR UP project was also one of four programs recognized earlier this year by the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The parent component of the program was recognized by Duncan as a best in practice nationally.
"As a GEAR UP project part of the University we're so proud to have a program like this," said Valdez. "There are so many good things going on in our school districts that show GEAR UP is that 'something extra' that helps provide extra support for students. We're getting ready to apply for a new GEAR UP grant so we're hoping to have a third cohort of GEAR UP students."
For more information on UTPA's GEAR UP project, contact Valdez at (956) 665-7501.