Community Involvement

Parents: The Valuable Key to GEAR UP Success

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For many families, the idea of building a college-going culture lives within the walls of the high school, with teachers, counselors and students driving the conversation about college. Parents, however, are the key partner in helping students stay on the path to achieving their goals of making it to college.

Some parents can draw upon their personal experiences with college. For first-generation students, though, that experience may be an incomplete one. That’s when the experience of GEAR UP Iowa offers the chance to expose both student and parent to the benefits of college. In many cases, this builds an even stronger belief in what attaining a college degree can mean to their student’s future.


Earlier this year, a select group of students and parents attended the Youth Leadership Conference as part of NCCEP’s National GEAR UP Conference. Jennifer Maliszewski, a parent from Sioux City, attended the conference with her daughter Rylie. Both were inspired by what they experienced and learned (Rylie shared her experiences earlier this year). For Jennifer, being part of the conference showed her just how valuable parent involvement can be for students working in GEAR UP schools. She shares her thoughts:

I feel so very blessed to be able to go to San Francisco with my daughter and experience this amazing summit. I watched my daughter learn new skills and make some great life long friends.
In addition to all that I was able to attend the parent institute. They taught us about all the things we can do as parents to help support our students on their journey to college.  The work books, curriculum and presenter were simply Awesome! Everything was put into terms easy for parents with no experience with college to understand and be able to navigate.
The information was priceless to me. It showed me things I never would have thought about like, making sure the school your student selects is the right fit for them and their goals. Not just the school their friends are going to or following a family tradition. Also to make sure they are challenging themselves and not just sliding by. They need the challenge to grow! Also they need to start building their resumes early and give themselves an advantage. They can accomplish this by job shadowing and internships. They also need to learn how to set goals, be persistent, be self aware, have motivation, be able to seek help, and learn how to fail forward. Failing forward means that they will fail in one way or another in their life. Students need to learn how to use that failure, learn from it and grow. There are SO many other things that are just as valuable for parents to know. It’s our job to help our students in every way we can so that they succeed in life!
My only suggestion is that EVERY GEAR UP PARENT NEEDS THIS INFORMATION. It’s too valuable for it only to be available to a few people.
Thank you again for this amazing experience!

Need Help With Summer Transition? These Resources Can Help

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For students making the transition from high school to college, nagging questions can turn into doubts. Left unchecked, those doubts can turn into the dreaded “summer melt,” where students who accept an offer to attend college don’t manage to make it to campus in the fall, for whatever reasons.

Those reasons can be abundant: From financial concerns and fears about academics to feeling overwhelmed by a larger campus or not knowing how and when to turn in housing applications, there are as many pitfalls for students transitioning to college as… well, there are students heading to college.

If you’re a student heading to college this fall, don’t let the changes ahead psych you out and take you off your game. College is an exciting time with new opportunities and there are many resources for helping with those questions and concerns you might have as you get ready to walk on to your new campus.

Here are some great places to look for answers, support and a confidence boost this summer:

Your College’s Financial Aid and Admissions Offices

Many students feel that once they’ve been accepted to a college that their next interaction with the school shouldn’t come until the fall. The truth is that financial aid and admissions offices are the perfect place to answer questions about tuition, fees, student aid, housing deadlines and more. Much of this will be covered at orientation (make sure that you sign up for it!), but if you have questions before then, a call to your school’s office can lead to a quick answer before it becomes a big issue.

Your College’s Student Organizations

Just as the school’s financial aid and admissions offices want to see prospective students succeed, so to do student organizations. Even though the school year is over, many organizations are already working to help embrace a new class of students, engaging in their community and working to make the transition to college easier. First-Generation students can especially look to these groups for support, advice and a chance to meet new people before even getting to campus. Having a familiar face when you get there makes the move to college that much easier.

Local Colleges

Many of the questions and concerns that students have during their summer transition aren’t unique to a particular campus. For more general questions, you can always call a local college to get insight to other resources or advice on how to move forward in the fall.

Local Organizations

Iowa College Aid’s “Course to College” program works to build community engagement in many towns throughout the state. That means that you may have a local organization in your own backyard that’s looking to help students making the transition from high school to college. Even if there isn’t a group in your town, reach out to local organizations such as United Way, your church or even a mentor or friend who has made the transition to college before you. They’re advice may have more in common with your concerns than you think.

Our Website 

Iowa College Aid’s website offers advice and answers for students facing any number of issues heading to college. From our blog to our video gallery, we can help students feel a little more secure about what awaits them in the fall.

Your Course to College

Iowa College Aid’s annual guide to preparing for, and succeeding in, college offers guidance of the steps that students can take before getting to school. More than that, the guide offers advice from college students on what to expect, as well as an example of average college student’s daily schedule. Getting a heads-up and hearing first-hand from other students can make a big difference in a student’s confidence.

Knowing How to Avoid Summer Melt Can Help Meet Your Academic Goals

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For many, summer vacation is the reward for a year of hard work and dedication in the classroom. But for those moving from high school to college, the months between graduation and arriving on campus can be fraught with challenges and distractions that can lead to students not completing their college goals.

“Summer melt” is the name given to those students who, for whatever reason, apply to a college, accept admission, but never arrive after high school graduation. There are many factors that can drive a student toward summer melt. Being aware of a few of those, and taking the steps to stay focused on the college path, can help make sure that the only thing that melts this summer is your ice cream!


Keep in touch with Counselors and Reach out to College Advisers

School counselors are there to help when challenges arise. Before graduation, students should ask high school counselors what resources are available to them in the summer. Need a helpful boost or reminder of why it’s important to get to college? Give your counselor a call!

Colleges are also looking to help students stay on track during the summer transition, many schools can reach out to students by text and email to make sure that the important dates during the summer transition aren’t missed.

Find a Mentor

It’s always easier to tackle a new challenge if you’ve spoken to someone who’s been through it. Community groups, schools and other non-profits offer mentors who can talk to students about the transition to college. But it can be as easy as talking to anyone you know who’s either in or graduated from college. Don’t be afraid to bring up your concerns about the transition when talking to a mentor. These relationships can last beyond the transition to freshman year and can offer a resource for support both in school and down the road. To hear some advice from first-generation students about making the move to college, check out our video “What I Wish Someone Had Told Me.”

Visit the College Website

Your school’s website is a great resource to answer questions you might have before starting school. Everything from student life, financial issues, academics, organizations and more can be found on a school’s website. Take some time to review the website, even before your student orientation. You’ll have a level of expertise that will make the transition to college that much easier.

Look into Placement Testing Before Orientation

Most schools have some sort of placement testing for incoming first-year students. These tests help gauge where students are in math, reading, and writing skills and makes sure students are taking the courses appropriate for their level of understanding in each subject. Some colleges will offer these tests at orientation, others require students to do them online or on-campus before fall semester starts. Students should make sure to contact the college to know when they need to take the tests.

Check College Health Insurance Plans

Many colleges have health insurance plans for students. Students should check their college’s requirements early to see whether it is affordable. Sometimes, colleges will automatically enroll students in the college’s health care plan. If a student already has qualifying insurance, they can usually apply for a waiver. To learn more about transitioning healthcare for students after high school, read the healthcare guide.

Take the time to emotionally prepare

No matter how much you prepare, college is a big change for many people. Whether you’re travelling far away or staying close to home, college is a major step into adulthood, complete with personal responsibilities that may not have been part of your high school routine. The stress of that change can have negative effects, with many freshmen citing it as a reason for dropping out during their freshman year.

If you’re leaving home, take the time to get you (and your family) used to the idea of you not being there every day. And if you’re staying closer to home, start identifying the people you can lean on in times of stress or the ways that you can deal with the pressures of school in a positive way.

Believe in Yourself

The best support students can find to stay on path to college is themselves. Remember: You’ve done the hard part and gained acceptance to college. Your dream of an education, as well as the career and life that comes with it is in your reach. But you can’t get your degree if you don’t show up.

For more tips and advice for planning for, getting to and succeeding in college, check out Iowa College Aid’s Your Course to College.

For Storm Lake Student, GEAR UP Iowa Sparks Lifelong Changes

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In celebration of National GEAR UP Week, we’re celebrating the students, facilitators and families that make GEAR UP Iowa successful in building college-going cultures in schools, homes and communities. Lessly Ortega is ninth-grade student from Storm Lake, IA.


Earlier this summer, Ortega was chosen to participate in the GEAR UP Iowa Student Summit, which brought together students from all of GEAR UP Iowa’s 12 school districts throughout the state to Grand View University in Des Moines. Students learned interpersonal and leadership skills to not only help them on the road to educational success after high school, but build and grow those skills in their schools. Ortega shares the immediate impact the event had on her:

I wasn’t born into a family where people grew up to go to college. All we have going for us is a simple high school education with work following after that. But ever since I was little I knew I wanted to break that cycle. I’m not a person who likes being average or going with the flow, I aspire to be someone who people will remember for generations to come. I’ve shared this dream with my friends and every one of them told me that was impossible and I should give up before I waste my time. You wouldn’t believe how close I was to giving up. That was until I went to the GEAR UP Iowa Summit, an event that completely changed my life.

When I first heard about GEAR UP Iowa, all I knew was that it meant free money for college, which I was grateful for considering the expensive cost of tuition. But I never would have thought of the lasting impact it would have in my life. The GEAR UP Iowa  Summit has been one of the best experiences of my life. It showed me how GEAR UP Iowa is much more than free money. I was able to learn how to better myself and how to become a better leader both in school and in life. The Summit gave me lifelong information which I put to work the day I got home from it. I went to all the places I could think of for volunteer opportunities. I was able to work at a retirement home, a kids club, and, the best experience of all, a girls camp as a counselor. I’m beyond grateful to GEAR UP Iowa for giving me the confidence and tools I need to be able to go out into my community and to be able to make a difference in myself and my community.

GEAR UP Iowa means hope in the future. I will continue on my path of greatness where ever that shall be. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.

Tips to Get a Summer Headstart on Your Scholarship Attack Plan

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As the old saying goes, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” But while college students receiving scholarships and grants might not get a ham sandwich, they get something even better: money for their education that does not have to be repaid after graduation (as opposed to private or federal loans). It’s as close to free money as a student can get.


The reason scholarships and grants aren’t “free” money is that students and families have to put in the time and effort to find the best opportunities to get their share. Each year, though, millions of scholarship dollars go unclaimed, because students don’t apply for them. Creating a realistic approach to scholarships and grants starts with understanding what they are and how to best prepare now to take advantage of financial aid and scholarship options down the road.

Be active

A good piece of advice for life, not just scholarship applications, students who are involved in their community either as a volunteer, participating in sports, traveling or just doing something that interests them, will help lay the groundwork for college applications, as well as scholarships down the road. They don’t give out scholarships for staying home and watching TV all summer, so use vacation time to experience the world and be active in it. It’ll make for a more interesting life, and a more interesting student when it comes time for applications.

Scholarships are earned, not “won.”

Some families might look at scholarships like the lottery, signing-up for each and every opportunity like an “enter-to-win” giveaway. While some scholarships offer a break from the rigors of other applications, skipping requirements like essays or teacher recommendations, students are counting more on chance than talent to win. Targeting scholarships that speak specifically to a student’s interest or experience will not only narrow down the number of other applicants competing for the same award, but give the student a chance to highlight what makes them unique.

Many scholarships are offered from schools directly

It isn’t just star athletes or school leaders getting scholarship offers from colleges. Institutional grants (a fancy way of saying “scholarships given by schools”) are the biggest chunk of scholarship and grant money awarded each year and they aren’t even that competitive. Rather, students can qualify for scholarships simply by meeting specific criteria as an incoming student, such as GPA, ACT score or through financial information reported as part of the FAFSA. The FAFSA is an important tool for school financial aid as many schools include scholarships and grants based on FAFSA information in their initial acceptance letter to prospective students.

Supply and demand applies to financial aid, as well.

Every student is unique and colleges are looking to create student bodies that reflect a wide array of students. Finding a school that appreciates that uniqueness can mean a less expensive education thanks to scholarships and grants. Racial and economic diversity, excellence in sports and outstanding community service are just a few of the things that can make a student stand out. If a students doesn’t bring anything interesting to the table, schools will be less interested in enticing them with grants and scholarships. That’s why it’s important for students to be involved in activities throughout their education and become the unique person that will make colleges take notice.

Private doesn’t always mean less expensive than public.

Just like cars, homes and high fashion, college is one of those situations where the old saying “nobody pays retail” rings true. Private colleges may comes with costs of attendance that might cause sticker shock for families, but, in many cases, those same schools will offer financial aid packages to accepted students that make the actual cost of attendance much lower. It isn’t rare for students to see private schools assumed to be “too expensive” end up costing less than “affordable” public schools when grants and scholarships are taken into consideration. Researching the financial aid options available from both the school and the state will help give a better picture of what to expect and how to compare.

Not all financial aid is the same

When looking at scholarships and grants, it’s important for students and families to understand the details of their award. Very few scholarships can be applied to a student’s entire education, as most awards are one-time lump sums to help students start on their education. Other grants might require reapplication each year or will only be awarded in future years if students meet certain criteria. Understanding what is available, and for how long, will help prevent financial surprises down the road.

Supercharge College Plans With These Summer Tips

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The books have just closed and the vacations are finally under way. But summer also offers the chance for students to get a jump on building a game plan for choosing and applying for a college. For incoming high school seniors, things are about to get real busy where college readiness is concerned. Beat the rush and get ahead of the game by following this summer college planning preparation checklist :


Finalize a list of target schools.
Summer is a great time to whittle down the list of schools that a student might attend. Still not sure which schools make the cut? Take advantage of vacations to tour schools.

Discuss finances in depth as a family.
Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can seem daunting. Taking the time to prepare now will make the process less time-consuming. Also consider the costs of target schools now to properly prepare for what students and families will need to succeed at that dream school.

Plan campus visits.
While summer might offer more free time, visiting target schools in the fall gives a chance to see what student life is like during classes. Don’t miss out on these opportunities by scheduling campus tours in advance, as reservations can fill up once the school year starts.

Take advantage of volunteering opportunities.
Volunteering is valuable and important not just for seniors looking to find work experience in interesting fields, but for students of all ages looking to establish a resume that will reflect well on their community involvement when applying to colleges down the road.

Stay on top of testing.
Choose the ACT or SAT based on spring scores, register for the fall test, and consider test prep. Knowing the test and score requirements of target schools will also help families develop a strategy for test-taking.

Line up your targets.
Develop a spreadsheet of target schools with deadlines for Early Decision, Early Action and Regular Decision. Applying early to a school shows an admissions office that a student is dedicated to the idea of being a student at that school. Make sure that students don’t overextend their early decision applications by applying to too many schools.

Don’t put off thinking about the Common Application.
Review application requirements and essay questions for each college on your list; open an account with the Common Application and get a head start filling out the easy parts. While it may be too soon to write that killer essay (there’s still a lot of living to do), filling out many of the parts of the Common Application will help students who otherwise might try to shove college applications in between busy homework and schools schedules.

Review scholarship application requirements and essay questions.
Many scholarships post requirements well ahead of time so that students have the opportunity to find the information and apply. Millions of dollars of scholarships go unclaimed annually. Hunting out and applying for scholarships can make the difference between attending that dream school or having to pass.

Think about recommendations.
Consider which teachers, counselors or coaches might write a letter of recommendation on your behalf, and reach out to them with a request. Just like students, teachers are far less busy in the summer than in the fall. Reaching out to those teachers that might right the best recommendation now not only reflects a student’s interest, but also respect for the teacher’s time. That alone might result in a higher quality recommendation.

Prepare to work hard.
Do your summer reading for the fall semester, and mentally prepare to continue working hard senior year. College is the goal. But there’s still that senior year to get through. Don’t overlook it.

Four Easy Ways to Prepare for College This Summer

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While summer might seem like the time to get away from school, vacation is a great time to not only build the skills that look great on a college resume, but also a perfect opportunity to take part in activities that will help students get a better idea of what kinds of careers interest them as they look toward their future.

Sure, it might be hard to put down the Xbox or skip a day at the pool, but by using their time to take advantage of these opportunities, students will have a head start on college, grow as a person by dedicating time and energy to those things that interest them and even have some fun doing it.


Test drive a career with internships
While some teens might take a summer job to help pay for gas and pocket money during their vacation, a summer internship helps students get involved in a field that may lead to a future career in a way that looks good on their college resume. Internships demonstrate commitment and passion for a field that a student could continue to study in college while also exposing them to the day-to-day reality of that career. Summer internships can strengthen a student’s determination to pursue a particular path in their future or it might save them the cost of switching majors later if their internship helps them realize a particular career isn’t all that they had imagined.

Get involved
Too often parents complain that their student won’t get off the couch during summer break. Encouraging students to get involved with causes about which they are passionate is a great antidote to couch potatoes. Even better, it helps your students as they prepare for college. Students can volunteer with community organizations in a variety of areas, often with other students their own age. Students looking to develop leadership skills can also start their own organizations if no local group is addressing the concerns they hope to tackle. Being proactive or taking leadership roles in organizations appeals to college admissions officers who look for students with demonstrated leadership experience.

Explore college courses
Sure, summer is normally the time to put away the books. But high school students looking to get a jump on college and save money on their future education can take advantage of summer sessions at local colleges. These classes offer the chance to earn college credit ahead of time and give students the chance to experience a college classroom environment so that they know what to expect. Taking courses in subjects that might be a potential major also gives students a chance to test drive a major before college to help them decide if that is the right path for them.

Turn travel into experience
Getting out of a comfort zone can often bring great benefits to students when it comes time for college applications. Travelling to new places, especially international destinations, can help provide a perspective for students who gain a broader sense of the world and the place they can take in it with the help of their education.