By Claire A. Johnson
Blakelynn Bond, a student at Marshall County High School in Western Kentucky, wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after graduation.
But she said she found her passion the first year she attended the GEAR UP Academy at the University of Kentucky.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to college,” Bond said, “but now I definitely think I can.”
The annual summer program just completed its third run, hosting 109 students and introducing them to the idea of college life. They spent week three weeks at UK experiencing classes that included rock climbing, photography and music.
The academy’s goal is to change the mindsets of high school students from “I can’t” to “I can” when deciding about their higher education future, according to Bruce Brooks, executive director of GEAR UP.
The academy is designed so students experience what it would be like if they were already in college, even allowing parents who haven’t attended college to become engaged along side them.
Forty families checked in to stay in the dorms after the program’s closing ceremony to experience residence life. Parents were also invited to take campus tours. Most students who attend the academy will be the first in their family to attend college.
Brooks said he and his colleagues went to Baltimore to learn the basic elements of the introduction program at Johns Hopkins University, which also hosts a successful summer program. Brooks said he knew the design for GEAR UP needed to be academy-style and college-oriented after the meeting.
They brought their idea to Dr. Randolph Hollingsworth, an assistant provost, who became a key figure in the creation of GEAR UP at UK’s campus.
“They were kind of on fire about the idea,” Brooks said, “and we knew that that was going to translate to something better than a camp … I knew we had a long-term partner.”
Brooks said the university makes the academy better with its involvement – college students serve as resident advisers and some of the classes are taught by UK faculty.
“With UK, this more than any of our other summer academies, UK really owns this. They have taken it as their baby,” Brooks said.
According to Hollingsworth, UK matches state funds for GEAR UP. The university budgeted $500,000 for the summer academy this year. The funds provided by UK and the Council on Postsecondary Education enable students to attend tuition-free.
The program’s curriculum reflects the learning objectives of “UK Core” classes, required for all of the university’s students.
Hollingsworth believes the class design will give students a better success rate at the university.
“Our goal is to strengthen the students academically, encouraging them to understand that a college education is within their reach,” Hollingsworth said.
At the closing event for the 2016 GEAR UP summer academy, UK President Eli Capilouto looked into the audience of the students and their families.
“Last year was the first time I attended this event, and the memories of that night have never left me, because I remember what was on display with all of you,” Capilouto said. “I saw last year, and I know I’ll see it again this year, an exhibition of what I think the two most important virtues one has to possess to be successful in college and in life: courage and curiosity.”
During the closing program, students eagerly showcased their work for Capilouto as well as their families. Performances of World Music demonstrated different cultural aspects of genres. Varieties of artwork and research presentations were also displayed.
It seems that everyone involved with the program experiences the benefits.
Geri Philpott, an academic coordinator for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, taught the Water, Wildlife and Wilderness class for the academy.
On the first day, students were getting up close and personal with different birds of prey.
Philpott said working with high school students versus college students recharges her.
“Everything is new for them, and new things are scary, but by the end of it, they had all overcome a fear,” Philpott said.
Jessica Espinoza, 21, has been a resident advisor at the academy for all three years. Espinoza said most students who come through the academy are rural, first-generation students. She relates well to them because Espinoza is from a small Kentucky town.
“I personally have become a better leader out of it,” Espinoza said. “The best feeling is watching the students grow.”
Cody Baynori, a sophomore from Newport High School, said he definitely hopes to return next year.
“I’ve almost cried a couple of times here,” Baynori said, “not from stress, but because I’ll have to leave these people.”
Baynori said he learned skills from the academy he will not only bring to a college but also use in his high school classes.
Baynori described the public speaking course he took at the academy.
“Each time, I was a lot less nervous.” Baynori said he quickly figured out his second speech was his favorite because he was most passionate about the topic.
“Next time I speak in school, I’m going to make sure to pick something I’m passionate about,” Baynori said.
For Blakelynn Bond, her three years at the GEAR UP academy have made an impact on her plans for her future.
“First year helped me realize what I want to do with my life when I took a media class,” she said.
The subsequent years she attended helped her realize how to make it happen.
Bond excitedly mentioned because of the aid from GEAR UP helping her find a possible career path, she has an opportunity to be a video production assistant in Los Angeles once she graduates. The skills she acquires from the job will help to give her a head start in college if she chooses it as her major.
Bond’s success in the program is the outcome GEAR UP aims for.
“We do great in Kentucky at getting kids to college, but just a certain level of kids,” Brooks said, “We’ve got to get different levels. We’ve got to get every student on track and believing for themselves that they can (succeed in college) and how to do it.”
Claire A. Johnson is a journalism senior at the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Media. She is from Paintsville.