GEAR UP to College with Unique Program

K. Patricia Bouweraerts
Peer Mentor Day Image

Peer Mentor Day was held at TMCC as part of the Near-Peer Mentorship Challenge, and included a College tour, lunch and chemistry class.

Many Washoe County teens may at first think that college is not in their future, but a program is reaching out to help students set aspirations high.

“Our overarching goal is to set an expectation to go to college, and being ready to go to college,” said Mari Jimenez-Ortiz, the GEAR UP Ambassador at Truckee Meadows Community College. “We talk about what to write in a scholarship application and how to read transcripts.”

GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, and is a program of the U.S. Department of Education. It has been in place for 15 years, and the Nevada Department of Education (NDE) has oversight of the grant activities. The federally funded grant has been put in place to increase the number of low-income students ready to enter and succeed in college, according to

Two and a half years ago, NDE proposed adding all Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) institutions to the federal grant program. The thought was that by placing staff at NSHE institutions, students could benefit from the activities already in place to prepare students for college, said Sharon Wurm, Director of Financial Aid at TMCC. Since that time, TMCC has participated, actively reaching out to Washoe County GEAR UP schools to motivate and enthuse teens about college.

All NSHE colleges and universities have a GEAR UP Ambassador. Colleges typically serve surrounding counties, although the University of Nevada, Reno, and University of Nevada, Las Vegas both work with all GEAR UP schools in the state.

There are a total of about 5,500 students currently participating in GEAR UP programs in Nevada. Typically, students are engaged in the program until they enter college.

GEAR UP schools in Washoe County include two cohort groups.

  • Class of 2018 from Wooster High School and Hug High School
  • Class of 2019 from Traner Middle School and Vaughn Middle School

“We go in and facilitate college readiness,” Jimenez-Ortiz said. “We go into each school once a month or more. It can be up to once or twice a week.”

GEAR UP Helps Students Know What To Expect as They Prepare for College

There is a coordinator at each GEAR UP school in Washoe County, called a Student Parent Involvement Facilitator, or SPIF. These full time facilitators provide academic advising for students and monitor students' attendance.

Jimenez-Ortiz said that some teens don’t see college as a possibility initially, and she wants to dispel negative beliefs, motivating them to set college goals.

“We teach a guidance lesson about college culture and the difference between colleges and universities and what they offer,” Jimenez-Ortiz said. “We explain what they need to study leading up to college, and cover terms they will see in grant and scholarship applications.”

Jimenez-Ortiz, along with a TMCC student ambassador and the GEAR UP ambassador from UNR, travel to middle and high schools. They tutor students in their classwork and offer assistance with homework assignments.

Parent workshops on financial literacy and financial aid are held on weekends or after school. They introduce the various college admission requirements. In addition to motivating students to aim high in their education, facilitators and ambassadors also work with parents to show them resources available to help fund their child’s education. Most of the sessions are bilingual, in Spanish and English.

Near-Peer Mentorship Challenge

Peer Mentor Day was held at TMCC on Feb. 9, in response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Near-Peer Mentorship Challenge. The day included a College tour, taco lunch, raffle prizes and a sample chemistry class with hands-on activities. TMCC peer mentors also spent time with the students talking about money management and applying for college, Wurm said. A video of the event will be submitted for the Challenge and a chance to invite the First Lady to speak at commencement.

“Tours are given so that students know what it feels like to be on a college campus,” Jimenez-Ortiz said.

On March 7, there will be a weekend GEAR UP summit at UNR. About 200 students will be invited from Washoe County, and 100 from Lyon County. Sessions are scheduled so students can choose breakouts they would like to attend, and can participate alone or together with a parent.

For more information about GEAR UP, call 775-337-5601, or email Mari Jimenez-Ortiz.