Grant allows University of Iowa to provide Summer Bridge Program, peer mentoring, academic coaching, and more

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Monday, September 28, 2020

Among the University of Iowa’s Class of 2024 are 327 students from across Iowa who have been preparing for this moment together, many since seventh grade.

The newly minted college students are part of GEAR UP Iowa, a seven-year federally funded project that aims to prepare students academically and financially to succeed in college starting in seventh grade. The program is a partnership between Iowa College Aid, 12 Iowa school districts, and seven partner colleges in the state, including the UI.


GEAR UP Iowa helps schools create a college-going culture and provides families and students the resources to help in their journey toward success.

Learn more about the state program.

Learn more about the UI’s GEAR UP Iowa College Partner Grant Project.

The current GEAR UP Iowa cohort is actually the second group to go through the state program. For the first group, GEAR UP ended when they graduated from high school. Thanks to GEAR UP Iowa College Partner Grants, students in the second group who attend a partner college will continue to receive support through their first year. The grants—$214,500 in the UI’s case—allow colleges and universities to provide additional resources for the students as they make the transition from high school to college.

“When the call for college partner grants came out, we were really excited because it’s such a great program,” says Angela Lamb, assistant director of academic support and retention. “GEAR UP has been a part of these students’ lives since seventh grade, and they’ve received all this great support in getting ready for college. We wanted to continue that support when they got here and make it a seamless transition. We saw it as an opportunity to make an impactful difference for Iowa students.”

The transition to college for incoming UI GEAR UP students began with a Summer Bridge Program before they even moved to campus. Originally intended to be in-person over the course of a weekend, COVID-19 necessitated the program move online throughout the month of July. Students were invited to complete a series of modules that covered a range of topics and skills. Along with lessons on topics such as goal-setting and time management, students could participate in a mock lecture and receive feedback on the notes they took, and submit a résumé to the Pomerantz Career Center to find a job on campus.

“These were important things they wouldn’t have learned in any other pre-semester programming,” GEAR UP Coordinator Amalia Riordan says. “They were designed to help them be better prepared and more confident entering the fall semester.”

Students who completed the 10 core modules and at least five of the 10 elective modules received $100 to help pay for textbooks.

Raquel Valladolid, a first-year student from Sioux City, Iowa, majoring English and creative writing and Spanish, says she participated in the Summer Bridge Program mostly for the textbook money—at least at first.

“I ended up doing all the modules,” Valladolid says. “The one that helped me the most was a note-taking one. My notes tend to get really scrambled, but their method of making a summary at the bottom of each page has helped already.”

University of Iowa GEAR UP Iowa scholarship match and textbook stipend

GEAR UP Iowa students are eligible to receive up to $1,200 scholarships each year through Iowa College Aid. The University of Iowa is matching those scholarships for students who attend the UI.

UI GEAR UP Iowa students who participated in the Summer Bridge Program and completed 10 core modules and at least five elective modules received $100 to help pay for textbooks.

Hasya Joshi, a first-year student from Ottumwa, Iowa, majoring in biomedical engineering and on the pre-medicine track, says he’s also already incorporated study techniques he learned during the Summer Bridge Program. But he also really appreciated another module from the program:

“I also took a lot from one that talked about the uneasiness of leaving home and how to settle in at college,” Joshi says. “It helped me cope with being away from home and moving on to the next stage of my life.”

Once the fall semester started, so did programming and resources tailored specifically for the UI GEAR UP students. A couple sections of an introductory rhetoric course were restricted to GEAR UP students, and Success in Rhetoric (SIR) peer mentors were given additional training to work with students in group and one-on-one sessions.

“This allows the GEAR UP students to build community and learn alongside their peers,” Riordan says.

Lamb says rhetoric was chosen as the learning community for fall for several reasons, including that it’s a class that contributes to all students’ path to a degree and that it is considered a foundational course for student success.

“We know that if a student does well in rhetoric, they have a much better chance of doing well overall,” Lamb says. “Also, Dana Thomann has been running the Success in Rhetoric peer tutoring program for a couple years, and it has been doing amazing things. Why reinvent that wheel? We asked Dana to partner with us and it’s been a great partnership so far.”

Valladolid says the rhetoric class is currently her favorite course, partly because of the instructor, Brittany Borghi, who leads and encourages interesting discussions, but also because of her fellow students.

“I can tell a lot of us had similar experience in high school, especially when we start talking about certain issues, such as education and even race a little bit,” Valladolid says. “We’ve had great discussions, and everyone is very welcoming.”

In the spring, GEAR UP students will take a psychology course, Learning about Learning, with Shaun Vecera, and LifeDesign with David Gould.

Along with peer mentoring, GEAR UP students also will have an academic coach, with whom they’ll meet in group and one-on-one sessions.

“Along with things like helping with goal-setting, academic coaches will be checking in with students to see how they are doing, making sure they are settling in on campus, and connecting them to resources based on their specific needs,” Riordan says.

Iowa isn’t only connecting with GEAR UP students during the year, but also their parents through surveys, newsletters, and a potential parent advisory board.

Through GEAR UP Iowa, students started going on college visits in middle school. The UI hosted GEAR UP days on campus and organized special visits based on student interests throughout the program.

“One of our main goals for students in high school was to make sure that they made at least one meaningful connection with someone while on campus,” Riordan says. “That way, they would have that person and know how to contact them to help make it a smooth transition.”

Joshi says he appreciated the opportunity to visit departments and facilities that are not always on the regular campus tours. Meanwhile, Valladolid says she would not have been able to visit so many colleges had it not been for programs such as GEAR UP.

University of Iowa GEAR UP Iowa students by the numbers

327 UI GEAR UP Iowa students

215 UI GEAR UP students who are taking rhetoric this fall in sections designated specifically for GEAR UP students

67 programs of study that GEAR UP students are enrolled in, across five UI colleges

41% of UI GEAR UP Iowa students identify as first-generation students (compared with 21% of the Class of 2024 overall)

31% of UI GEAR UP Iowa students identify as African American, Asian, Latinx/a/o, or multiracial

“It helped me narrow down my college list,” Valladolid says. “It’s one thing to look at the statistics and jazzy words they put in the brochures, but it’s another thing to be on campus and feel what the atmosphere is like.”

Joshi served as a GEAR UP ambassador for two years during high school, and through his role applied for and received a grant for a project to boost school morale and celebrate student achievements. He also was one of four Iowa students chosen to attend the 2019 GEAR UP Youth Leadership Summit in San Francisco, California. His roommate at the summit is now a fellow Hawkeye. He says GEAR UP helped prepare him to for college.

“Starting in middle school, it helped me think about what I wanted to study and do with my career,” Joshi says. “My GEAR UP coach, Ms. (Barb) Hanson, was always someone I could go to if I had any questions. I counted on her as a mentor as well as a friend.”

Lamb says she is proud of the GEAR UP Iowa students and the comprehensive and holistic program that UI has set up for them.

“All these things we’re doing, research has shown that they can have a positive influence on a student’s transition to college and success in college,” Lamb says. “When you pair all these things together, it’s even more impactful. Grants like these don’t come along that often in student services, so we wanted to take the opportunity to do as much as we possibly could to help these students be successful at Iowa. We’re excited that they’re here, and I’m excited that we are prepared to support them and be a part of their college journey.”