GEAR UP College readiness program gives students tools to become leaders at school and beyond

Stephanie Montoya

Over 100  students, parents and educators gain leadership skills, explore college & careers at annual conference 

More than  100 high school students gathered at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Albuquerque this fall to participate in the annual Student Leadership Conference, organized by GEAR UP New Mexico, a college and career readiness program at the New Mexico Higher Education Department.   

GEAR UP is a federally funded program that aims to increase access to resources for college and career readiness for students in grades seven  through 12. The program partners with  middle and high  schools in eight districts across New Mexico, serving high proportions of rural, low-income, and first-generation students in Albuquerque, Bernalillo, Taos, Española, Mountainair, Santa Fe and Socorro. 

Each year, the program hosts multiple student-centered conferences and events, including an annual student leadership conference that develops students’ capacity to lead their peers in developing plans after high school. 

GEAR UP’s College Engagement Officers (CEOs) are student leaders from GUNM’s eight  partner high schools who assist in planning and carrying out GUNM events and service projects throughout the school year. During the conference, CEOs created career plans, learned how to engage in difficult conversations, listened to inspiring keynote speakers, and networked with colleges and workforce resource providers.  

"We aspire for students to take the knowledge they've acquired and share it not just with their peers at school but also with their siblings, families, and community members. I'm excited to bring students, teachers, and these exceptional speakers together, especially in a post-COVID world where students are reintegrating into a society that has changed in numerous ways. I want students to be aware of the opportunities available to them, establish new friendships, and build networks as they prepare to pursue ambitious goals in their education and careers," expressed Dr. Corine Frankland, State Director of GEAR UP New Mexico. 

The conference kicked off with a college and career fair featuring more than 20 different organizations. GEAR UP New Mexico stresses the importance of highlighting the accessibility of higher education in New Mexico with tuition-free college offered through the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship.  

“This conference has definitely gotten me out of my comfort zone. I am more confident when I speak because when I came here for the first-time last year, I realized I can be an excellent leader and my voice can be heard,” Natalie Slate, a senior Los Puentes Charter School, said. 

Award-winning Tewa Hip-Hop and R&B artist Brenda Atencio, known as G Precious delivered an inspirational keynote speech about her traditional upbringing and her journey into the world of music. Following her speech, she performed, and her dancers encouraged students to join them on the dance floor to showcase their dance moves. Additionally, motivational speaker Juan Cangas from CoolSpeak also delivered a keynote address, sharing his personal challenges and triumphs on the road to success. 

Gitanjali Rao, inventor and TIME’s 2020 Kid of the Year, also spoke to students about the trial-and-error process she went through while developing her several projects — a key theme in her book “A Young Inventors Guide to STEM.” 

“At every conference — and I am a veteran at this point, I’ve been to several— I learn more about my students and watch them grow. I see them challenge themselves and grow in new ways that are always exciting. It’s fun to see them become more who they are as they discover more about themselves. I see them build confidence, get excited and learn about each other, as well as themselves,” Melissa Mendonca, GUNM Program Coordinator at Albuquerque Talent Development Academy, said.

On the second day, GUNM partners FOCUS Training and CoolSpeak hosted student workshops covering topics ranging from money management to self-expression. The conference culminated in a presentation from each GUNM school showcasing the traits of a good leader.  

“The conference has taught me a lot about leadership and the skills I need to be successful after high school, and especially in college. The skills I learned will definitely help advocate for myself and other students. It will help me my fellow GEAR UP CEOs and supporting those around me,” said Patrick Montoya, a junior at Española Valley High School.  

The GEAR UP program  received $31.4  million from the U.S. Department of Education in 2020 to support a seven-year grant  benefiting an  estimated  7,000 students and parents each year. The program also  looks forward to continuing the tradition of the Pathways to Success Native American College Readiness Conference and bringing additional college and career  readiness opportunities to students and families.