Education is at an all-time low in Mississippi, but some people are going out of their way to help students stay in school and believe they can go to college.
Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, more commonly known as Gear Up, is a federally funded program for rising high school sophomores with a goal to “promote a higher learning experience by showing students that it is attainable and a necessary part of their journeys to achieve their own personal goals,” said Ryan Whittington, director of Gear Up.
Serving 41 schools in 20 districts across Mississippi, Gear Up has helped over 9,000 students statewide since enacted by Congress in 1998. Thanks to a grant from the United States Department of Education, many scholarships are offered, giving more students the opportunity to experience a college setting despite their financial situation.
The program is year-round and sponsors eight summer academies across the state at the University of Southern Mississippi, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University, among others.
The University of Mississippi and the Division of Outreach are hosting three of the Gear Up summer academies in June, two in math and one in English. More than 130 students will reside in the Luckyday Residential College for one week while learning not just academics, but life lessons and self-confidence to help them far beyond the classroom.
Whittington has seen the impact the program has had on the students from beginning to end.
“While they are only on campus for a week, it is very rewarding to see the changes that occur over that short period of time,” he said. “Not only are they more comfortable with the subject material, but they are more confident both socially and academically.”
Students are on a rigorous schedule that includes a wake-up call at 6 a.m. every day and seven hours of classroom time. They also have a daily “exploring session,” where they learn about admissions, financial aid and other departments on campus.
Etoshia Butler, senior biology and psychology major, attended summer programs in high school and understands the importance of getting a jump-start on college.
“Although they’re not taking college classes, they get to be in the same setting with college students as well as hear from students who — I know like myself and a lot of others — have gone through summer programs and possibly came from the same background,” Butler said. “We just tell them, ‘Don’t give up, no matter what’s going on. You can make it to college. Money doesn’t have to be an issue. There are scholarships available if you’re keeping your grades up,’ and things like that.”
The ultimate goal of the program is to give students the confidence that they can make it through high school and college regardless of their personal situation.
“The main thing is they come here — or any of the colleges in Mississippi — to see what it’s like to be a college student,” said Molly Harris, junior public policy major and Gear Up counselor. “It’s that extra motivation to see that they can get here and that it’s possible for them to do this and make it this far. I guess it’s the motivation and the desire to get out.”
Keeping the attention of teenagers isn’t an easy task, but the university professors and graduate students that teach the sessions tailor their lesson plans to keep students engaged while still learning the crucial academic information.
Classes use guessing games, logic puzzles and kite construction to put the principles of mathematics in a tangible form.
“Every time I ask them if they’re getting it, they say that they are and that the professors really relate on their level,” Harris said. “One teacher, he makes catapults with them so they learn angles and math by catapulting marshmallows.”
During Butler’s time in the summer programs, she got the chance to know professors and students before ever applying for the university. She understood what was expected from her once she got to college because of the preparation of programs like Gear Up and had a much smoother transition because of it.
Whittington and Butler both agree that the highlight of their experiences with the students is knowing their work is making a difference for families all over Mississippi.
“I understood that the program was great for not only the students and families we serve, but the entire state of Mississippi,” Whittington said. “Gear Up will always be a program with the best interests of its participants at its core.”
@ The Daily Mississippian — Oxford, Miss.