Celebrating strong pathways to college during National GEAR UP Week

Students in GEAR UP shirts and teachers at Kino Junior high in Mesa, Arizona

Students, educators and parents at a GEAR UP Week 2019 event at Kino Junior High in Mesa.


Arizona State University joined with thousands of students, parents, educators and college access partners around the country to celebrate National GEAR UP Week Sept. 23–27.

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs is a federally funded grant program that helps local partners — K–12 schools, higher education institutions, state agencies and community organizations — increase college readiness and enrollment, increase graduation rates and educate students and families about postsecondary options, preparation and financing.

In its inaugural year, GEAR UP served a cohort of 1,390 underserved students in Arizona through tutoring, mentoring, test preparation, social-emotional learning, cultural field trips, college visits, job shadowing, academic and career advising and more. Nationally, GEAR UP serves nearly 708,000 students in 44 states

Throughout the United States, GEAR UP Week featured local proclamations, social media campaigns and other celebrations. Valley schools such as Kino Junior High School, Gililland Middle School, Desert Horizon Elementary School and Don Mensendick School planned activities such as goal setting, writing aspirations on a large “dream wall,” donning college gear and vlogging about making a difference in the community. GEAR UP also brought in a nationally recognized vendor, Paradigm Shift, to provide students at Maryland Elementary School and Porfiro H. Gonzales Elementary School opportunties to cultivate grit, resilience and a growth mindset during the week's events. 

The week’s celebrations incorporated evidence-based activities that improve student success. Arizona students wrote letters to their future selves giving advice, an activity that has been shown through research to improve young people’s confidence and motivation.

Some of the advice Kino Junior High students gave to their future selves:

  • “Keep trying on hard things until you get it right.”

  • “Be happy, be good and work hard.”

  • “Don’t give up, and keep trying.”

  • “Don’t worry, you can achieve every one of these goals if you try hard enough.”

GEAR UP programming starts in seventh grade and goes through students’ first year of postsecondary education. GEAR UP senior coordinator Ricardo Villa-Sanchez, who worked with the program as a tutor at Sullivan Elementary School when he was a student at ASU and also worked at Carl Hayden High School, says that the impact on students lasts beyond the official programming.

“My favorite part of GEAR UP has been the bond formed between staff and students. These relationships turn into meaningful and long-lasting mentorship. I still actively work with a handful of graduated GEAR UP students from my tenure as an academic tutor,” Villa-Sanchez said.

He and senior coordinator Jasmine Dean lead Arizona's programs by supervising tutors and mentors and working with administration and staff on programming, events and services. Though he earned his degree in psychology, Villa-Sanchez said that his first experience in GEAR UP pushed him in the direction of education.

“The time spent with students is still the most enjoyable part of my job and always serves to reinvigorate my drive for doing the job that we do,” Villa-Sanchez said. “Programs like GEAR UP will often serve as a long-lasting, impactful experience that helps to drive future opportunities.” 

ASU earned a $1 million U.S. Department of Education State and Partnership GEAR UP award to provide seven years of funding for the program. Districts participating in the GEAR UP grant include Tempe Elementary, Tempe Union, Mesa Public Schools, Pendergast Elementary, Tolleson Elementary, Tolleson Union, Glendale Elementary, Washington Elementary and Glendale Union. Community partners include the Be A Leader Foundation, APS, Glendale Community College, the Arizona College Access Network, MidFirst Bank, Mesa Counts on College, Tempe College Connect and many others who are committed to improving postsecondary outcomes for Arizona students and families. Many of these partners are also part of the Achieve60AZ goal that by 2030 60% of Arizona adults will hold a postsecondary credential or degree.

Sylvia Symonds, ASU associate vice president of outreach for ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services, said that ASU is proud to celebrate the impact of GEAR UP with the national community.

“This is a program that is transforming the lives of more than 1,000 families in Arizona every year by providing family engagement and rigorous coursework that opens up the college-going pathway for students. GEAR UP students, educators and partners should be proud this week and every week about making higher education possible and more accessible for more Arizonans,” Symonds said. 

Sharon Smith, dean of students at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, said that GEAR UP is a program that has a real and sustained impact on students’ lives and Arizona’s goals for higher education.

“The GEAR UP program provides rigorous academic, personal development and career preparation tools for students to access higher education, receive professional development and gain mentorship and friendships that have a lasting impact on students’ lives,” she said. 

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