In late June, about 275 rising ninth-graders from several Virginia middle schools participated in two GEAR UP Virginia Power of Youth camps at the University. GEAR UP — Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs — provides various programs such as tutoring, mentoring and summer camps to encourage young kids to attend college. GEAR UP is funded by a federal grant given to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Marcus Martin, University Vice President and Chief Officer For Diversity and Equity, said his office, the Virginia-North Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation, or VA-NC Alliance, and the Center for Diversity in Engineering also provided financial support to accommodate the two camps’ stay. “My office is interested in diversifying [the] student body — especially low-income and first-generation college students — so the perfect program for us to assist with is GEAR UP,” Martin said. Martin said he was delighted to welcome students from the school that he attended in his hometown of Covington, Virginia. “These were low-income and disadvantaged kids, and they got excited to see the University and energetic about potentially going to college,” Martin said. GEAR UP Senior Coordinator Erin McGrath said most of the students participating in the program are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and likely to become the first ones in their immediate families to go to college. “One of the main goals of GEAR UP is to get students on college campuses ... into the dining halls [and] dorms, see what college students’ life are all about, and picture themselves there in the future,” McGrath said. McGrath said 15 Virginia school districts with a high percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch sent students to participate in GEAR UP, which serves about 4,500 students and partners with institutions of higher education across the state. GEAR UP also partners with CoolSpeak — a youth engagement company which facilitated GEAR UP’s two sessions at the University this summer. “[CoolSpeak] communicates really important information to students, they get them to think about the transition between middle school and high school, they have them create vision boards, and they talk about the importance of standing up for what they believe in,” McGrath said. “[Coolspeak] builds a nice sense of community within the camps.” CEO and CoolSpeak President Carlos Ojeda Jr. said his company was able to provide activities, workshops and presentations geared toward promoting and teaching different leadership ideas to the young students. “Research shows the earlier you start to advise students about the benefits of a college education, the greater the persistent rate of students who would actually go to college [is],” Ojeda said. “Coming from lower economic status, education is the key factor to changing your status.” The 2015 program evaluation summary conducted by CoolSpeak indicated positive changes in students’ self-esteem and college aspirations. The percentage of students that strongly agreed with the statement “I take a positive attitude toward myself” increased from 52 percent to 79 percent. The percentage of students who strongly agreed with the statement “I want to go to college” increased from 82 percent to 96 percent When students were asked about three goals for their futures after the program, some answers are “graduate high school, graduate college, become a nurse”, “earn scholarship, go to college, be amazing”, and “go to army, go to college, become a lawyer”. “There are really big GEAR UP alumni out there that come back and work [in their communities],” Ojeda said. Another group of GEAR UP students will visit the University in early August.