College Visits Offer GEAR UP 7th Graders Chance To See Possibilities

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GEAR UP Iowa, Iowa College Aid’s initiative to increase the number of minority and low-income students prepared to enter and succeed in education after high school, engages students at target schools throughout the state starting in 7th grade. Working with 12 partner school districts in Iowa and nearly 40 partnering institutions of higher education and community-based organizations, GEAR UP facilitators, like Tiffany Berkenes, help develop and encourage the “college-going” culture in students that carries through middle school and into high school. For more information on GEAR UP Iowa, visit Iowa College Aid’s website.

A recent trip to Graceland University and Iowa Central Community College gave students an opportunity to see the end result of hard work by getting a first-hand experience of life on college campuses. Berkenes shares more about the trip and the spark the exposure ignited in students:

For many middle school students, the thought of college is a distant goal of which they don’t yet think about, or a dream they feel unattainable due to various barriers. Some of them have parents or siblings in college, and it’s been a part of household conversations; for others, it appears as a place only the brightest, wealthiest, or best athletes they see on TV can pursue. This spring, these students have learned that college, in fact, IS possible…for anyone.

Hundreds of GEAR UP Iowa 7th graders from partner districts across the state have been exploring several Iowa colleges and universities, touring campuses, talking with college students about college life, participating in fun career-oriented and leadership activities such as robotics, engineering, and laser optics, and returning home with some pretty cool college swag such as T-shirts, wristbands, and lanyards.

Last Monday, I had the opportunity to hop on one of five charter buses that took 200 Des Moines Weeks Middle School GEAR UP students to check out one of the following Iowa institutions: Central College, Graceland University, Iowa Central Community College, Indian Hills Community College, and the University of Northern Iowa. Principal, Audrey Rieken, felt it important to expose the students as early as possible to college – and we agree that it’s never too early to begin planning and preparing for college!

When our bus arrived at Graceland in Lamoni, the students jumped off with obvious excitement and anticipation! It was a pleasure to see that many students who may have never even been outside of the city of Des Moines, experience something new. And, thankfully the rain held off!

GEARUP Student College Trip
GEAR UP Iowa 7th graders get a chance to experience life on a college campus.

The students heard from an admissions counselor talk about college life and watched a video of Graceland in action. Then, they were divided into two groups to tour the brand new Shaw Center for Visual and Performing Arts, residence halls, the library, and Bruce Jenner Sports Complex, named after the alumnus and Olympian. During a student panel of Graceland students, the 7th graders asked thoughtful questions and were attentive listeners. According to the students and teachers, the day was a success and they’re looking forward to visiting other colleges and universities in 8th grade!

In addition, Kyla Bleam from Admissions at Iowa Central said, “We had a great time with the students yesterday! They were all very polite, well behaved students! We hope we will have the chance to have your group on campus again!”

GEARUP College Trip 2
GEAR UP students listen to experiences from current students to help motivate the idea of going to college.

Here are some other ideas on how middle school students can learn more about college:

  • Connect with a local college students (perhaps local alumni) for mentoring
  • Short-term and long-term goal-setting
  • Activities around interests and talents, and how they link to college majors and careers
  • Discuss financial literacy, college financial aid, and open a 529 College Savings account
  • Get involved in college access programs like Educational Talent Search
  • Designate a certain day each month as a College Awareness Day, hang college posters or pennants, and wear college gear
  • Host family info sessions or workshops around college planning and invite them on college visits
  • Attend camps offered on college campuses
  • Invite college professors to come talk with students
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