GEAR UP program hosts college and career readiness conference for Native American students

Anne Maclachlan


POJOAQUE – More than 140 school staff, Indigenous students and their families gathered at Buffalo Thunder Resort this spring to participate in the 2nd annual Pathways to Success Conference, organized by GEAR UP New Mexico.   

The conference focused on college and career readiness for Native American students and families with workshops exploring scholarship opportunities, self-expression and identity, and post-secondary careers in natural resources.   

A college and career fair opened the event, featuring more than 25 organizations including conference partners Tewa Women United, Native Forward Scholars Fund and the New Mexico State University Indian Resources Department. 

GEAR UP New Mexico, a division of the New Mexico Higher Education Department, is a federally funded program aiming to increase access to resources for college and career readiness for students in grades seven through 12. GEAR UP partners with middle and high schools in eight districts across New Mexico serving high proportions of rural, low-income and first-generation students.  

“I am both incredibly proud of and inspired by the overwhelming success of our recent Pathways to Success Conference,” said Dr. Corine Frankland, director of GEAR UP New Mexico. “This gathering not only provided vital exposure to college and career opportunities but also celebrated the rich cultural heritage and achievements within Indigenous communities. Witnessing the enthusiasm and sense of empowerment among attendees – students, families, teachers and tribal liaisons – reaffirms our commitment to fostering culturally conscious pathways to college and career success for the Indigenous youth of New Mexico.” 

“When I looked around the ballroom and saw the familiar faces of students that looked like me or my children, it brought me so much joy. I know that we at GEAR UP New Mexico understand the uniqueness of an Indigenous student’s position, because they walk in two worlds – traditional and American,” Shellie Garcia, GEAR UP New Mexico Fiscal Officer and member of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, said. “As a Pueblo woman, I come from a place where family and community kinship are a huge part of everyday life. GEAR UP New Mexico ensured the event not only included students, but also parents and community members. It was so powerful to see the families included in the conference with their students. I hope to see the conference grow each year. I take so much pride in being a part of something so special that is geared towards our Indigenous students, empowering them and showing them that success after high school is achievable.” 

Diné TikTok star, actor and counselor Nasheen Sleuth engaged students through her keynote address, encouraging them to try and try again, giving her own college experience as an example to perseverance. In addition to offering mental health counseling to youth, she also uses humor and awareness to educate as “Auntie Máyázhí” on her TikTok, @forwardsleuth. Sleuth’s acting credits also include Chasing the Light and Frybread Face and Me on Netflix.  

“It’s important for them to know that successful people come from the same communities as them and that our path is not always straight as an arrow,” Sleuth said. “It’s these mountains and hills and valleys – all the ups and downs. There is going to be failure along the way, but there is beauty in failure.”  



“When our students leave us, they never truly leave us. They take us with them. I was hoping to tell the families that when your students go off to a welding program, or off to a community college or go off to a university, they aren’t going away from you,” Joaquín Zihuatanejo, a poet from Dallas and Pathways to Success keynote speaker, said. “They are going to better their lives to better your life, and in that sense, they take you with them. The way that your ancestors are with you always, you will be with them always.”  

In addition to providing a keynote to conference participants, he was joined by poet and author Natasha Carrizosa, who works with CoolSpeak, an organization that provides conference workshops. Carrizosa encouraged students at the conference not only to write about their connection to their identities, but also share what they had written.  

Kaydee Mike, a 12th grade student from Albuquerque Talent Development Academy, is looking into attending Institute of American Indian Arts in the fall to study creative writing. During the poetry session at the conference, she was empowered to share some poetry she wrote relating to her experience as a Diné student.  Kaydee is in the process of publishing her first book.  

“The conference was really helpful in finding colleges and scholarships, especially because I want to go into creative writing,” Kaydee said. “It’s very hard for me to find organizations that fund degree programs like that.”  

Brenda Atencio, who creates award-winning hip hop music as G Precious, performed a set for students and served as the event’s emcee for the second year. Atencio was raised by her grandmother on Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. She has gone on to win several New Mexico Music Awards in the hip hop, pop, and Native American music categories, the Native American Music Award for “Best Song of the Year” in 2022, and the 2024 World Entertainment Award for “Best Pop/Rap Song of the Year.”  

“I think it’s important to reach Native students, just because we are a demographic that is sometimes overlooked,” Atencio said. “It’s really important to bring our students to the forefront, assisting them with their education, and looking at other possibilities once they leave high school. A lot of times our students are left behind and not encouraged to go further than 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 benefitting an estimated 7,000 students and parents each year. The program 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.   

For more information about GEAR UP, visit, or follow GEAR UP New Mexico on Facebook and Instagram.