Students who qualify for free and reduced lunches get leg up from federal program that ensures income isn’t a barrier for higher education

By Elizabeth Sampson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

The cards seemed stacked against Christian Cabral when it came to attending college. Finances were tight, as her single mom, JoAnna, held down as many as three jobs in Gillette, cleaning motel rooms and doing food preparation at a gas station while raising Cabral and her two brothers. As the family struggled with basic living expenses, they also faced the costs of medical care for Cabral’s younger brother who has Down Syndrome.

Christian Cabral earned a full-ride scholarship to any school in the country thanks to the help she received from the GEAR UP advisor at her high school in Gillette. Now she serves as a student ambassador for the program at the University of Wyoming. (Courtesy photo from Christian Cabral)

“I did not think I was going to be able to go to college if I didn’t get a scholarship . . .,” said Cabral, 20.

But Cabral received the ace she needed to change the hand life had dealt her: While earning an associate’s degree at Gillette College, Cabral’s mother heard about GEAR UP, a federally funded program that helps low-income students attend college. (Its name stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.)

Cabral’s mother encouraged her to join GEAR UP, but it wasn’t until her junior year at Campbell County High School that she took advantage of its tutoring and academic advising services. GEAR UP advisor Kristen Young helped Cabral apply for the Daniels Fund Scholarship, coaching her through her application essays and conducting mock interviews so she would be prepared for that portion of the competition.

The support paid off: Cabral received the four-year, full-ride scholarship that covers tuition, room and board, books and miscellaneous living expenses. The scholarship is worth up to $100,000 per recipient over four years.

Cabral no longer worries about college costs thanks to the support she received from Young and GEAR UP.

“She [Young] genuinely changed the projection of my life,” said Cabral, a junior at the University of Wyoming, majoring in Spanish with a minor in French. She also serves as a GEAR UP student ambassador to give back to the organization that gave her so much.

GEAR UP shows students the benefits of getting an education

As schools mark national GEAR UP week (Sept. 26-30), Jordyn Chandler, GEAR UP student programming coordinator for Wyoming, said it helps students become aware of the wide world of opportunities that education can afford them.

Jose Atilano is a freshman at Northwest College in Powell. He participated in GEAR UP throughout high school and says it helped him pay for college and be prepared for campus life. (Courtesy photo from Jose Atilano)

“It’s a really important program to give these kids a glimmer of hope,” Chandler said. “A lot of them have been in a cycle of generational poverty with their whole families. We’re just showing them there is a way out. It doesn’t have to mean you are riddled with student debt. There are a lot of resources available to them, and there’s a lot of people who want to help them succeed. . .”

UW is the initial grant recipient for the federal funds that support GEAR UP, but it is facilitated by the state’s seven community colleges. Those schools work with 7th through 12th grade students and college freshmen who qualify for free or reduced lunches; GEAR UP serves around 2,000 Wyoming students annually.

In Wyoming, each community college creates its own GEAR UP programming, but typical events include financial aid workshops where counselors help students and their parents fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); job opportunity tours, where students learn about careers they may not have considered; and ACT prep workshops.

GEAR UP participants are eligible for a federally funded scholarship of $800 per semester for up to 12 semesters for simply participating in the program during college and filling out the FAFSA. Additionally, every college and university in Wyoming offers institutional GEAR UP scholarships, each with its own requirements. The UW award is worth $5,500 per semester.

Chandler said there is a state and local match requirement for every federal GEAR UP dollar Wyoming receives through the U.S. Department of Education grant. The institutional awards most of the match requirement.

A four-day summer camp at UW is one of the highlights of the program. Last summer GEAR UP students tried out 3D printing and air brush logo design. They also learned speed reading and retention skills that will help them transition to the heavier reading load of college. And then there were the soft skills lessons in self-esteem and etiquette to help them more easily navigate the business world.  

Said Chandler: “We say, ‘Your town is small, but Wyoming is big, and the world is even bigger.’”

GEAR UP also coordinates with UW for Campus Pass, a statewide college visit day. The GEAR UP sites bus their students and families to Laramie, eliminating any transportation barriers that would prevent them from visiting campus.

“Just bringing them on to campus and making them feel like they can see themselves there—that they deserve to be on campus, that they have a place if they choose to come here—is really important,” Chandler said.

Build the Wyoming workforce

GEAR UP doesn’t just help low-income students—it also benefits the state. 

GEAR UP is available to any Wyoming student who qualifies for free or reduced lunches. Students can attend a GEAR UP summer academy at the University of Wyoming in Laramie to learn about college life and career options.(Courtesy photo from GEAR UP Wyoming)

“Wyoming has one of the lowest college-going rates in the country, and lower income students are disproportionately impacted by that,” Chandler said. “It also affects our state economy…There’s been an issue where companies want to come into Wyoming, but we don’t have an educated population to support that. The more educated our Wyoming population can be, the better the jobs that will be available and the more businesses will want to be here.”

Jose Atilano, 19, is one of those degree-seekers employers look for as they determine whether to bring their business to Wyoming. He recently graduated from Greybull High School in Greybull and is a freshman at Northwest College in Powell. GEAR UP students are not required to attend school in Wyoming, but Atilano wanted to stay close to his hometown for his first years of college.

Most members of Atilano’s family join the workforce immediately after high school, so when he heard about GEAR UP, he wasn’t sure if it would be a good fit. During his sophomore year, a new counselor asked Atilano about his future plans.

“She convinced me that I would be a really good college student, and I would thrive in the college environment,” said Atilano, who aspires to a career in economics. He joined GEAR UP and calls it the “best decision” he ever made.

“It provided me the resources I couldn’t afford, but on top of that, it made me realize I had the potential of succeeding in life, and honestly, breaking some of the repetitive cycles that my family has repeated over and over again,” Atilano said.

Atilano is the first person in his family to attend college. He continues to be a part of GEAR UP at NWC, saying it gave him a head start with college readiness.

“You’re so prepared,” he said. “Other college freshmen are freaking out, and you’re trying to help them, because GEAR UP gives you that insight.”

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