Setting Students Up for Success
The GEAR UP program provides much-needed supports for first-gen and low-income students
With access to tutors, internships, and other resources, students from middle- and upper-class families often have a leg up when it’s time to prepare for higher education and the working world. On the other hand, many first-generation and low-income students lack access to these benefits and find themselves struggling to keep up in both college and the workforce. Programs like Boston GEAR UP, administered by BU Wheelock’s College Access & Student Success (CASS), work to remedy these inequities.
Directed by Arielle Derival, Boston’s GEAR UP provides comprehensive support like tutoring, life skills classes, and college tours to middle and high school students. The program works with 7th- to 12th-grade students at two public schools, Mario Umana Academy K–8 and East Boston High School. Hundreds of students participate in the programs: there are 635 high school students and 265 middle school students.
In Boston, Miriam Alfaro Ortez and Richarldine Lubin serve as advisors for East Boston High School students, and Maria Paredes is the advisor for Mario Umana Academy. They take students to colleges, educational fairs, and other events that spark their interest in higher education. They also encourage students to take full advantage of what the program has to offer, as well as other forms of support from their schools and communities.
Struggling students can work with GEAR UP staff to improve their attendance records and get tutoring for challenging subjects. And when it’s time for students to prepare for college and the working world, GEAR UP helps students prepare strong applications that will make an impression on admissions officers. Students also have the opportunity to attend workshops and summer boot camps to give them the knowledge they need to perform successfully in college and the workforce.
For many of these students, this is the first time they have been able to envision themselves as college graduates. “Some of our students have never stepped foot on a college campus before joining GEAR UP,” says Derival.
A diverse group of students
The Boston GEAR UP program is part of a national network that serves 560,000 students in 45 states. In Massachusetts alone, GEAR UP serves 6,300 middle and high school students in, as well as first-year college students. While GEAR UP is open to any of the partner schools’ students without regard for race, ethnicity, immigration status, or financial status, the Boston program serves participants who are predominantly low-income Latinx students and typically first-generation college students.
Federal funding ensures that low-income students are able to get wraparound supports long before they enter higher education. “All services provided to students are free of charge,” says Lubin.
GEAR UP’s director and advisors are well equipped to support a racially, culturally, and academically diverse group of students: Derival is a first-generation Black college graduate from a low-income background, Alfaro Ortez was a top-performing student from Boston Public Schools, Paredes immigrated from Mexico to attend college, and Lubin transferred from a community college to a four-year institution and is now pursuing her master’s degree at BU Wheelock.
“If I had these resources when I was in high school, my college journey would be completely different,” says Lubin.
Academics and beyond
GEAR UP’s programming isn’t limited to academics—tutors and advisors guide students to learn life skills they’ll need after they finish their education, too. For example, students play a game called “Claim Your Future,” where they learn how to navigate aspects of adult life, including budgeting, working with banks and car dealerships, and finding housing.
“It’s great to meet the students during their freshman or sophomore years and follow them to graduation,” says Alfaro Ortez.
The numbers reflect students’ growing interest in higher education opportunities after participating in the program. In the 2022–23 school year, about 94% of Boston GEAR UP seniors completed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) or FAFSA Awareness form, an essential step to receiving federal financial aid for college.
And the program’s benefits don’t end after high school. During the first year of college or trade school, students continue to receive support and advice from their advisors. GEAR UP also offers a scholarship to students whose financial aid package doesn’t cover the entire cost of tuition.
For the GEAR UP staff, the students’ success is its own reward. “The relationships that are built with students, families, and teachers are what makes the program valuable,” says Paredes. “They motivate me to do this work.”