$8.8 million federal grant to help teens succeed in college

Students in a classroom
The new federal grant will enable the Educational Partnership Center to serve more than 1,600 students in the Salinas Valley beginning in their sixth and seventh grades and on through their first year of college.

Andrea Camacho can tick off a long list of ways the UC Santa Cruz Educational Partnership Center’s GEAR UP college preparation program helped her on her journey to higher education.

Among those were learning about the application process for admission and financial aid, and the option to enroll in community college first and then transfer. Camacho, who now serves as a college facilitator for EPC’s South Monterey County GEAR UP program, is thrilled that the center has received an $8.8 million, seven-year GEAR UP grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The grant will serve more than 1,600 students in the Salinas Valley beginning in their sixth and seventh grades and on through their first year of college. This GEAR UP grant was one of only 27 programs funded nationally out of 156 applications. She’s glad these students will have more opportunities to receive college guidance.

“It’s super needed in those areas where students don’t really have anybody at home to ask,” Camacho said.

GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs and is designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. The program offers customized college, career, and financial aid advising, tutoring, services that extend and enrich the school day and year, such as summer academies, opportunities for gaining job-ready skills in high demand industry sectors, college and educational field trips, workshops on financial aid and more. The program is already offered in Watsonville and in north and south Monterey County.

Maria Rocha-Ruiz, executive director of the UC Santa Cruz Educational Partnership Center, which oversees GEAR UP, said the funding will help advance the center’s commitment to improve high school graduation and college-enrollment and attainment rates for low-income, first-generation college students across the Monterey Bay and Silicon Valley/San Jose regions.

“I am excited about the opportunities this funding will provide students in the Salinas Valley to gain a foothold on the path to college eligibility and realize their aspirations of graduating from college,” Rocha-Ruiz said. “Building upon our prior successes with GEAR UP, we are looking forward to our partnership with the Salinas Union High School District and Santa Rita Union School District to jointly foster enduring college-going cultures for students and their families.”

With funding from the new grant, GEAR UP will serve Harden and La Paz middle schools and Everett Alvarez, Rancho San Juan and North Salinas high schools in the Salinas Union High School District. It will also serve Gavilan View Middle School in the Santa Rita Union School District.

Jazmin Hernandez, Watsonville lead college facilitator for UC Santa Cruz Early Academic Outreach Program, her experience in GEAR UP helped her overcome obstacles as she pursued higher education. She and her mother attended many workshops and programs sponsored by GEAR UP starting when Hernandez was in middle school. When she finally applied for college at California State University, Monterey Bay, she was initially rejected. But her mother, inspired by the information she had received at the workshops over the years, encouraged her to reach out to the university and see if there was a mistake. Ultimately, Hernandez was accepted to the university. Now Hernandez works hard to make sure today’s young students have the same experiences and are also encouraged to pursue their college dreams. She feels strongly that she wants to give back what she has received. “I wouldn’t be here doing the job I do if it wasn’t for being involved at a young age,” she said.

As part of GEAR UP, the EPC will work with partner organizations: Bay Federal Credit Union, Boys and Girls Club of Monterey County, Digital NEST, Hartnell College, Monterey County Office of Education, Salinas Library, Salinas Union High School District, Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System, Santa Rita Union School District, and UC Merced.

“The EPC and its partners will offer services that emphasize college and career readiness and create a sustainable college-going and completion culture, work that is guided by recent research, best practices, and a unified framework of academic preparation and college and career readiness,” said Rocha-Ruiz.

The Educational Partnership Center, a program of the UC Santa Cruz Division of Undergraduate Education, coordinates new and longstanding student academic preparation efforts of UC Santa Cruz with the goal of increasing access and opportunity to postsecondary education for underrepresented students across the Monterey Bay and Silicon Valley/San Jose regions. Through nine vital programs and with support from federal and state funding, EPC provides an array of direct services which support students on the college-going pathway through college, career, and financial aid advising, tutoring, mentoring, academic planning, leadership training, college and career awareness and enrichment, and teacher professional development.