The GEAR UP Experience

Cristian Soto

What is GEAR UP? And what can it do for you? Before getting to how GEAR UP can help you, it’s important to first understand the organization’s mission. GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Readiness and Undergraduate Programs. It is a completely free program that is full of services for low-income students and their parents. GEAR UP’s main goal is to help its students graduate from high school and, at the same time, prepare for college. 

Many services come with joining the program, including tutoring and homework help, ACT and SAT prep, and campus tours for both students and their parents (though thanks to COVID, most current college tours are virtual). And GEAR UP doesn’t leave on your own after you graduate from high school—they will even help you out during your first year of college. After your first year the program ends, but GEAR UP does have connections to other, similar services that can help you out during the following years of college. Another GEAR UP service is Career Exploration, which helps you figure out what kind of careers would be the best fit for you and your interests. They also offer a set of workshops that prepare students for college through providing resources on scholarships, resume building, college tutoring, college applications, and family support meetings.

Family support meetings are a bit like parent-teacher conferences. However, rather than evaluating students’ performance, they instead focus on the kinds of services that they are giving students while they are in the GEAR UP program. There is also a parent specialist that will relay information to parents for extra clarity. 

On Monday the 13th, I went and interviewed West High School’s new GEAR UP counselor, Jose Morales Diaz. I asked him what made him become a GEAR UP leader and want to become a part of the program:

“[I] fell in love with the GEAR UP program while being a student in the program,” he said. “And I didn’t really know what to do after high school but I got a Master’s in education, knowing I could make a difference in the lives of others just like people made a difference when I was in high school.” Jose’s goal is continuing to work with students; he wants to support West’s students as well as its teachers. Jose joined GEAR UP in 2011, during his sophomore year. He felt connected to his counselor, and used the different services that were there for him—like tutoring and financial aid—when applying for college. I also asked how his experience with working in GEAR UP was going so far. He said that there is a lot of work to be done while running the program, and that operating GEAR UP and even being able to talk to students requires a lot of leadership skills. But, taking the time to talk to students and making students a priority is a rewarding part of his job.

As a student who has been a part of GEAR UP for a year now, I sort of knew what I was getting myself into when I joined because my sister was in GEAR UP when she was in high school. She was the one who recommended that I join; she told me how they really helped her out with her homework and college applications. So, I went ahead and joined up while I was heading into my junior year. This was way before I knew school would move online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the new, online school year came around, I got the link for the GEAR UP Zoom meeting. I was nervous, but also curious to see how GEAR UP would be able to tutor students and help them with homework while operating completely online. After the first day, which was just an introduction and the application to officially be a GEAR UP student, I met a tutor named Marshall. He was very friendly and welcoming, even if pretty much all of us had our cameras off while we were there.

Getting help with the homework situation went alright, though the online format did make it more difficult. But I got a lot of motivation to finish my work from the tutors at GEAR UP, and I really enjoyed showing them the photos I took in Advanced Photography. GEAR UP really helped me get feedback and find and share new ideas for my upcoming photography projects. I also enjoyed my conversations with the GEAR UP tutors. They were sometimes school-related and other times not, but regardless I enjoyed sparking up talks, sharing my ideas, and getting help. It’ll be sad once the time comes to say goodbye to GEAR UP.