Mentors

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.

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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!
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Becoming #FutureProof: GEAR UP Student Leaders Embrace National Conference

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Each year, the annual GEAR UP Youth Leadership Conference brings together GEAR UP students from around the country in an opportunity to engage with each other, learn from their shared experiences and gain an insight to overcoming the challenges that come with preparing for college. Armed with this knowledge, GEAR UP Youth Leaders return to their schools as an example of how to build a college-going culture, showing classmates how everyone can succeed.

Sioux City High School student Rylie Maliszewski served as one of Iowa’s GEAR UP Youth Leaders. Having returned recently from the conference, she shares her experience and the impact that participating has had on her college and educational outlook.

This past week I attended the GEAR UP Youth Leadership Conference in San Francisco, California. I was able to attend this conference thanks to my GEAR UP advisors and coordinators, my wonderful parents, and my mentor, Ms. Ford. Thanks to their hard work and my own, I met so many wonderful people and learned so many new skills that I will use forever. I am beyond grateful for this experience. I met many life long friends at the conference! Many of whom I have talked to everyday since the conference ended. I am so blessed to have been one of 150 students around the nation at this conference. Now that I am home, I want to reflect and share my amazing experience!

On the morning of July 16, my family and I woke up at 2 a.m. to head to Omaha. It was my first time flying and I was very nervous. Luckily, the flight was very smooth and our flight was about an hour shorter than they thought. The view was amazing and I even spotted a waterfall during the flight.

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This conference was different than many others.

About a month before the conference began a Facebook group was created. This gave us a chance to meet and engage with other students around the nation attending. A few weeks after a friend of mine created a messenger group, which allowed us all to be ourselves and not worry about being formal. Soon after I created a Snap Chat group which mainly had students who did not have Facebook on it so myself and a few other student could help spread important news! Later on we decided to do group video chats about once a week leading up to the conference. This first chat had about six to seven and our last chat had about 10 to 12.

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These video chats allowed us to put names to faces which I believed was really cool and, thanks to the Facebook and SnapChat groups, we all recognized each other as the conference began. It was absolutely amazing how close a lot of us were already without actually meeting in person. I even saw a few people before the conference even began.

The first night we did a lot of icebreakers. The following morning at breakfast we had an amazing plenary speaker, Hill Harper, who starred on “CSI: New York,” one of my favorite shows. He talked a lot about the importance of school systems, districts, officials and more, to listen to what the students need from the students and not from outside sources. His speech was truly amazing and very relatable. Monday we worked a lot on making a match between values and behaviors. We also worked on the importance of storytelling and learned the steps in telling a great story. We even had a singing battle.

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Tuesday came with a lot of fun. We learned about the importance of living “about the line” and also worked on creating our large presentation for the last breakfast plenary. I helped others make their story as best as it could be. Many worked on a skit and the “Show Me What You Got” box. At the end of the night we did a really amazing and touching activity involving our biggest fears and struggles in life and vowing to not let “them” bother us and get to us anymore. It was cool “breaking” my fear/struggle and watching others do the same.

Wednesday was a very sad day for many of us. I had made so many amazing friends from the social media groups and beyond. Our presentation was truly mesmerizing and I was so glad to be a part of it. All of us were so supportive of one another.

After our group presentation, we wrapped things up and said goodbye. During our goodbye and thank you to everyone, I don’t believe there was a dry eye in the room. Every day at this conference felt like a party, we had so many dance parties and battles. I truly am grateful for this experience and the opportunity to meet amazing lifelong friends I miss them all dearly and really hope we will be able to do a reunion soon. I can’t wait to see how my fellow attendees and I use the skills we learned and how our futures end up.

Thank you GEAR UP Iowa for this amazing experience, one that I will never forget. Thank you for allowing my Mom to go with me as well. Thanks to this conference, I am Future Proof! #GEARUPWorks #GUCon

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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!

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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.

Avoid Getting Stressed Out Over College Decision With These Tips

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After years of hard work and months of waiting, students are starting to receive acceptance letters from colleges. Those students accepted into more than one college might face some difficult decisions to make when weighing the pros and cons of one school against another.

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“College  fit” means finding the school that best meets at student’s needs for the future, but there is no such thing as a “perfect school.” Students shouldn’t stress themselves out thinking that if they pick the wrong school, their life will be ruined. After all, college is what you make of it. But with a little research and effort, students and families can feel more secure about the school they pick. Here are some tips :

Compare financial aid awards

While cost shouldn’t be the only thing considered when deciding between schools, the financial aid offered can go a long way to giving one school an edge over another. The financial aid award letter often comes after the acceptance letter, and has many things to consider when reviewing. Check out our videos on comparing financial aid award letters for more tips (here and here).

Dig deeper with schools

Students already researched schools before applying, but now is a chance to get more detailed information to get a more complete picture of what a school offers, not only in education, but day-to-day life. Such questions can include:

  • What is the graduation rate? How many students return after their freshman year?
  • Are there work or volunteer opportunities that reflect a student’s major or interests?
  • What do students do for fun?
  • What student support services does the school offer?

Students can talk to college admissions counselors, current students, recent grads or even the college’s official website to research these and other subjects. It’s important to use only trustworthy sources of information and to recognize the difference between fact and opinion. A college’s official website and its admission officers are often the best sources of factual information about that college.

Visit — or revisit — the campuses

Now that a student has been accepted to a school, a college visit becomes even more important. Even if a family has taken a campus visit previously, going back with a more focused approach will help students see if they truly see themselves as a student at that school. Can’t visit a campus? Call or email the admission office with questions, reach out to professors in your areas of interest or ask to connect current students and recent graduates. High school counselors and teachers may also be a good source to recent grads or current students.

Think about it

Research and asking questions can provide the information that students need to make a decision, but asking and answering the important questions can only be done by a student with their family. How did the student feel during their campus visit? Did the school offer both the academic and social aspects that will lead to success? Will they be happy there? These basic questions might lead to some further reflection about each school.

Make your decision

The good news is that schools don’t need to hear back immediately. Many colleges don’t expect a final decision until May 1, so students and families have some time to make up their mind. Lay out the pros and cons and find the school that fits best with financial, academic and career goals. Remember, though, that colleges are serious about reply deadlines. Not sending a deposit by the deadline can lose a student’s place in the incoming class.

Some Recommendations on Recommendation Letters

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College Application Month is underway away (including the Iowa College Application Campaign, part of Iowa College Aid’s 3-Step Process), and students are working to complete packages that will best showcase to colleges who they are as a person and a student. An important, though sometimes overlooked part of the application, is the recommendation letter. A good letter can provide a broader picture of what makes a student unique and well-suited for a school, while a bad one can come off as obligatory and offer no personal connection to the subject. Here are some tips to consider when pursuing application letters:

Who Needs Recommendation Letters?

Most schools will state if a letter of recommendation is required or optional, though some may provide the opportunity to provide both. Usually, required letters will be asked from a school counselor or teachers with whom the student has worked. Even if a school only requires an optional letter, students should take advantage of the opportunity to present someone who can reinforce their strengths to an admissions officer.

Recommendations can be essential in the following situations:

  1. A student needs someone else to help explain an obstacle or hardship.  Learning disabilities, deaths in the family, unusual personal or family challenges can all fall into this category and a school counselor is often the person who can help explain.
  2. The applicant needs clarification from a school official to explain what is or isn’t on the transcript.  If a student was unable to complete a certain course because it wasn’t offered on campus or limited by school policy, the school counselor can help explain.
  3. A student knows their application will undergo review.  Letters of recommendation from teachers and optional essays will help in the holistic review process.

Who Should Write Recommendation Letters?

Finding the right person to write a student’s recommendation letter is a strategic decision. The right person will know a student well, be able add something to the application that isn’t well represented in the student resume and essays and can speak to your child’s academic strengths?

Students should include at least one academic teacher who has taught them in class for at least one full semester.  Even if the student didn’t earn an A, a the teacher who can discuss a student’s academic abilities will go a long way to supplementing a list of activities from a student’s resume. Teachers should be encouraged to illustrate with specific examples, if possible, showing how a particular project, paper or situation showed student strengths through handling the work.

Who Should NOT Write a Letter of Recommendation?

The desire to get a big or recognizable name to write a letter of recommendation will not only serve as a poor replacement for quality letters people who know the student well, they can actually undercut the impact of a letter if the writer only offers a broad recommendation that doesn’t show closer knowledge. Just because a family member might be connected to an influential community member or businessperson doesn’t mean that a letter can replace one written by a person who knows the student as a person.

#GEARUPWorks Thanks To Strong Staff, Parent Engagement in Denison, Storm Lake and Perry

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While National GEAR UP Week draws to a conclusion, the work of GEAR UP Iowa facilitators throughout the state continues. Working closely with schools, students and families, GEAR UP Iowa serves as a critical tool to increasing college enrollment and completion by 2020. Though Iowa stands as the nation’s leader in high school graduation, Iowa’s continued success and growth relies on encouraging students to continue their education beyond high school. Doing so not only gives students the skills to serve a growing economy, but to personally thrive within it.

GEAR UP Iowa Facilitator Flow Slowing works with students in Perry, Denison and Storm Lake, Iowa. As a Latina, she appreciates not only the efforts required to increase education after high school for all students, but also the unique difficulties that face Latinos as they frequently face additional cultural challenges as first-generation students. Armed with engaged teacher and parent teams in her districts, Slowing believes that GEAR UP Iowa’s work with students in these districts will make a positive impact not only on student lives but also on the health of their communities. She shares her experiences from her first year of work with Perry, Dennison and Storm Lake:

As a GEAR UP Iowa facilitator, I have had the privilege of working with Denison, Perry and Storm Lake school districts.  These districts are striving to create inclusive learning environments in their schools to better serve a diverse group of students. I am very passionate about working with underrepresented students and their families, particularly with Latinos. My daily work is informed by the importance of cultural responsive services to promote higher education among immigrant students and their families.

Immigrant students bring both opportunities and challenges to schools and communities. GEAR UP Iowa program is supporting these schools in creating a college going culture among their students, families and communities.

At Perry Middle School, counselor Jody Schuttler manages the GEAR UP grant with the great support of Principal Shaun Kruger. Both are very committed to their students and are always thinking about innovative ways to engage students and families. Some of the services that GEAR UP Iowa students received during the first year include:

  • Tutoring and mentoring
  • Enrichment activities: Students who had 90% of homework completion participated in an Adventure Learning Trip that focused on developing communication, problem solving and cooperation skills.
  • College and Career exploration: Around 150 students participated in a field trip to DMACC Center in Perry. They spent time doing hands-on activities in the fields of welding, health occupations, criminal justice and computer programming.
  • Family engagement: During parent teacher conferences, parents and students received information about the GEAR UP Iowa program and scholarships. In addition, 10 Latino families participated in Juntos “Together for a better education” , a series of workshops that promote high school graduation and postsecondary education among Latino families.

Denison’s fantastic GEAR UP Iowa team includes Director of Secondary School Improvement Scott Moran, Director of Elementary School Improvement Heather Lagerfel and Denison Middle School 8th grade teacher Maggie Gorman, who also serves as the school’s GEAR UP Iowa coordinator. This group meets regularly to discuss data on student academic performance and to ensure that GEAR UP Iowa activities address the students’ academic needs. During the first year they offered the following services:

  • After School Tutoring: Students were identified based on their academic needs and proficiency. The schools offered math and reading tutoring as well as homework help. Around 30 GEAR UP Iowa students were mentored by high school seniors in the Cadet Program. Mentors helped with homework and provided a nurturing relationship as role models.
  • Enrichment program: The GEAR UP Iowa team at Denison Middle Scholl created two after-school clubs. The Engineer Club focused on the fields of electrical, mechanical, civil, and computer engineer while the Earth Club focused on agriculture, gardening and conservation.
  • Family Orientation Night: GEAR UP Iowa students and families learned about the GEAR UP Iowa program and its benefits. Students received special certificates for their involvement. Separate meetings were held in English and Spanish to accommodate families.
  • Denison also acquired National Clearinghouse Tracking Analysis to track students’ educational attainment after high school graduation.

For the upcoming year, Denison is planning to continue their tutoring, enrichment and mentoring program, as well as activities for college exploration and family financial awareness.

Storm Lake Middle School Principal Jay Slight oversees the GEAR UP Iowa grants at his school. He is very committed to serve a diverse group of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and believes in the importance of professional development to increase student academic achievement. We are also fortunate to have an enthusiastic group of teachers and counselors who share the GEAR UP Iowa goals.

These are some of the services that GEAR UP Iowa students at Storm Lake Middle School received during the first year.

  • Support programs: Selected students participated in AVID classes to increase student achievement and interest on higher education.
  • Tutoring: Students received after-school reading and math programs, interventions during the school day and lunch “study table” in order to increase their proficiency in math and reading.
  • Mentoring: Twenty students were mentored through the “Team Mates” program, which featured many college student mentors.
  • College Exploration: Students visited Buena Vista University and had the opportunity to learn about college requirements, scholarships and financial aid while touring the campus.
  • Family Engagement: Students and families learned about the GEAR UP Iowa program and had the opportunity to learn more about Iowa State University. An ISU admission counselor shared information about college requirements and the importance on getting good grades in school and participating in extracurricular activities.

Storm Lake parents have also stepped up to offer support. Two Storm Lake Middle School parents (Emilia Marroquin, who serves as Outreach Coordinator at Head Start, and Nichole Kleepsies, County Youth Education Coordinator at ISU Extension & Outreach) have helped create a GEAR UP Iowa parent group in Storm Lake to grow with GEAR UP Iowa students as they progress through school.

Each of these communities allow me to further understand both strengths and barriers among underrepresented students as they strive to graduate from high school and continue with postsecondary education. The GEAR UP Iowa program is sending a powerful message to students, letting them know that we, as a country, believe in their potential to pursue postsecondary education and will be there to support them academically and financially through this journey. The GEAR UP Iowa program is providing services and scholarships to increase educational attainment among minority students, but most important the program presents open opportunities and brings hope.