NCCEP/GEAR UP National Conference: Together We Rise

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“If we’re going to continue to succeed as a nation, we need so many more of our young people to reach their fullest potential. This begins with education, and with taking young people where they are and helping them understand that they can achieve almost everything they can imagine. GEAR UP is a powerful example of this.”The Honorable U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah, who introduced the legislation to implement the GEAR UP program in 1998, which currently serves approximately 550,000 students nationwide and 6,300 in the state of Iowa.
The GEAR UP Iowa team, along with Iowa College Aid Executive Director, Karen Misjak, and six staff members from GEAR UP districts, Sioux City and Clinton, had the opportunity to join 1,800 GEAR UP educators from across the country at the National NCCEP/GEAR UP Conference in San Francisco last week. The conference kicked off with Congressman Fattah’s speech about the success of GEAR UP and inspiring us all to continue working collectively towards closing the opportunity gap and guiding more youth towards achievement in higher education. Emphasizing the conference theme of “Together We Rise,” Fattah and NCCEP President/CEO, Ranjit Sidhu pointed out that in order for people to succeed individually, we must succeed on the collective ability to rise – we must care not only about our own kids, rather care about ALL kids.

GUI Facilitator, Denise Riley, reflects on her experience: ”’What’s the point of teaching them how to do the FAFSA if they don’t believe in themselves?” This was one of the points made by a conference session speaker who wanted to make sure all students realize they can go to college. It’s important to help students create a vision for their future and give them the tools they need to help them get there. My favorite part of the conference was hearing students share their experiences and how GEAR UP helped them see that there’s a way.” Throughout the conference, attendees chose among several concurrent sessions covering a variety of topics such as the following: program data and evaluation, student near-peer mentoring, college and career readiness, summer programs, a holistic approach by integrating the arts, non-cognitive skills, community partnerships, STEM initiatives, and family engagement. GUI Grant Coordinator, Darcie Sprouse thought “the conference was very motivational and it encouraged me to think about the future of GEAR UP Iowa and the impact we can have on Iowa students.”

There were many other conference highlights that were not only extraordinary learning experiences for GEAR UP staff to apply in their own work, but also a few happy tears shed as a result of remarkable stories of strength and triumph through adversity. These highlights included the following:

  • Sheila Barragan de Guerrero of Hidalgo, TX accepting the award for GEAR UP Parent Leader of the Year. Sheila arrived in the U.S. just four years ago and is an active volunteer of many community and school organizations. Guerrero spoke in her native Spanish saying, “I am Mexican. I am an immigrant. GEAR UP adopted me and made me feel worthy.”
  • William Brooks Van Buren of Gillette, WY accepting the award for GEAR UP Youth of the Year. Van Buren is a prime example of resilience and perseverance as he and his two siblings were born into a single parent household with frequent bouts of homelessness and missing four years of elementary school. He is now headed to Purdue University to study computer science!
  • Hearing writer/director, Mary Mazzio and former student, Lorenzo Santillan, discuss the award-winning documentary film, Underwater Dreams, about “the epic story of how sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants learned how to build an underwater robot from Home Depot parts and defeat engineering powerhouse, MIT, in the process.”
  • Listening to Salman Khan, founder and executive director of Khan Academy. Khan Academy “offers practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard that empower learners to study at their own pace in and outside of the classroom” in numerous world languages for FREE.


GUI Facilitator , Tiffany Berkenes, had this take away from the NCCEP Conference: “It was also a great opportunity to network with fellow GEAR UP educators and gather other ideas from programs of which are making a remarkably positive impact on students and schools. I am most excited about exploring the possibility of implementing a summer component for our GEAR UP students related to college/career readiness and leadership.”

The result of this event focused on student success has motivated GEAR UP Iowa to do more. The conference theme,“Together We Rise,” posed three key strategies:

  • We must continually excel at our work to maximize student success;
  • We must prove that GEAR UP works and build the research and evaluation infrastructure to guide improvements and ensure sustainability; and
  • We must mobilize our communities, states and the nation around our success.

Our team came back to Iowa ready to “rise up” and selflessly champion the needs of our communities, so that we will rise together.


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