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University of Nevada, Reno senior Alexes Garrett was selected from a national pool of applicants as part of an elite group of 24 students to take part in the GEAR UP Alumni Leadership Academy. GUALA recently afforded Garrett the opportunity to attend a training session in Washington, D.C. where she and her cohorts learned how to advocate for the program and current GEAR UP students.

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP, is a discretionary grant program set up by the federal government to increase the population of low-income students prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education. The aid comes in the form of six-year grants given to high-poverty middle and high schools.

Garrett entered GEAR UP as a seventh grader in Las Vegas, Nevada. Participating in GEAR UP during her time in middle school influenced her decision to attend Northwest Career and Technical Academy, a magnet school, instead of her zoned high school, according to Garrett.

"GEAR UP is the reason that I'm in college now," Garrett said. "They introduced me to scholarships, told me what they are, how to apply for them. They also gave us a Free Application for Federal Student Aid workshop. I have some pretty extenuating circumstances, so the FAFSA as it was, was pretty difficult for me to fill out. I was able to pay for school because of the help they gave me."

Garrett has faced adversity unthinkable to many college students but she didn't just overcome hardship, she flourished in her higher education career. After coming to the University as an orphaned, first-generation, low-income black American student, she remained involved as a GEAR UP alumni while also succeeding academically. Garrett cited the overall support she's experienced from the GEAR UP staff both in high school as well as at the University as one of the key factors in her success.

Today, Garrett is studying environmental engineering, ecohydrology and Spanish with the aim of aiding underprivileged communities. She intends to pursue that goal over the winter where she'll visit Nicaragua to work on a water development project aimed at providing clean water to a community that currently has none. Garrett will also remain active in the GEAR UP community, hoping to both mentor current students and become more involved in policy, a subject she never thought she would be interested in until attending the GUALA training.

"It's very hard to get to this point when you don't have support - societal support, familial support, support from your community, and you have no access to the knowledge," Garrett said. "You don't know where to look, which is why I want to advocate and mentor and definitely be a little bit more involved in the policy making side because it's very interesting and it's where [change]happens."

Garrett will also be participating in the Youth Leadership Conference for income-qualified, first-generation students in the coming month. Here she plans to use the advocacy and mentoring skills she learned in the GUALA training in order to make a difference in the lives of the group of students she will be mentoring.

"I just really want to, if nothing else, be a source of inspiration for the young people that are currently enrolled in the GEAR UP program," Garrett said. "I hope that through my experiences, through my GUALA experience and my prospective future opportunities, I can inspire them to overcome whatever adversities they're going through and to press on to college."

GEAR UP is a $322 million federally-funded program that serves approximately 570,000 students in low-income schools across 43 states and 1 territory. The northern Nevada region is served by the Nevada State GEAR UP, which operates out of Nevada Department of Education and serves 5,500 students. In order to better support the GEAR UP mission nationwide, the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP) created the GUALA program, with the support of the Kresge Foundation. GUALA works to advance the college and career readiness in communities by providing 12 months of training for Alumni Leaders on topics related to peer-to-peer outreach and mentoring, social media engagement, public speaking and education policy.

Source: Nevada Today