PULLMAN, Wash. – More than a thousand seventh graders from communities across south central Washington spent a day on the WSU Pullman campus on May 25 as part of a program intended to help school districts serving low-income students demonstrate that a college education is an achievable ambition.

Along with more than 40 chaperones, the 1,045 middle school students – from the communities of College Place, Prescott, Touchet, Walla Walla, Moses Lake, Soap Lake, and Warden – spent most of the day touring the WSU campus and learning about the variety of academic programs offered at the university.

The event was part of WSU Harvest of Hope
GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) – an effort designed to prepare economically disadvantaged middle school students for admission to a college or university after high school. Designed to encourage and assist students to prepare for college beginning in the sixth grade, the GEAR UP Harvest of Hope program is open to all students at partner schools and encourages every student to plan for a college education.

The GEAR UP Project was funded in August 2002 by the Department of Education; funding is for five years at a funding level of $$7.68 million. 

Currently, more than 3,006 sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in the seven school districts are involved in the program through a coordinated effort that partners local youth service providers such as Broetje Orchards, Boys & Girls Club of Columbia Basin and the Walla Walla YMCA. The coordinating efforts for this campus trip have been the responsibility of the Northwest Learning and Achievement Group, another partner in the GEAR UP Program.

Genoveva Morales Ledesma, director of the GEAR UP program at WSU Tri-Cities, said Tuesday’s Pullman campus was a first for the newly funded program and is intended to provide students with a personal experience that will connect them with the university environment.

“The motto for the Washington state GEAR UP Programs is ‘college is a plan, not a dream,’ ” Ledesma said. “This is where we hope many of our students will begin to make a connection with WSU that will lead them to start planning for a college education.”  

The WSU campus visit was preceded by a variety of preparatory activities in each participating school district as well as post event essay writing assignments. The middle school students had “done their homework” in learning about WSU academic programs and even taken a preliminary look at the cost of earning a college degree, Ledesma said.

In addition to helping acquaint middle school students with the university campus and community college campuses in Washington, GEAR UP staff members assist students in obtaining tutoring, developing study skills, setting goals, and setting up job-shadowing opportunities. The program also supports programs for parents, professional development for teachers, and scholarship planning assistance for students. 

Alton Jamison, WSU associate vice president for Educational Development, and Yolanda Flores Niemann, WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of comparative American cultures and director of Hispanic Outreach, were also responsible for the GEAR UP Program. The pair helped obtain funding for the Student Support Services program on the Pullman campus and spearheaded successful the grant-writing efforts for the Upward Bound Program that now raise $2.8 million per year in additional funds to encourage first-generation and low-income students to stay in school, graduate and continue on to postsecondary education. 

With GEAR UP, Student Support Services, Upward Bound and Latina/o Outreach, and other previously existing programs in Pullman and at the urban campuses, Niemann said WSU is now reaching out to recruit and retain students with more comprehensive, strategic approaches than ever before.

Some 80 percent of the students chosen for the program were referred by teachers or counselors who identified them as having a high learning potential. The balance were at-risk students who have medium to low grade point averages, have not completed core classes or who live on a reservation. 

WSU Upward Bound projects include WSU staff members  who work with local high school teachers to offer after-school and occasional Saturday educational activities. Areas of emphasis include English and literature, math, laboratory sciences, social sciences and foreign language.