GEAR UP College Readiness Program Gives Students Tools To Become Leaders At School And Beyond

More than 100 students from eight New Mexico high schools came together at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Albuquerque to develop skills they can use to lead their peers in developing plans following high school. Courtesy/NMHED


ALBUQUERQUE More than 100 high school students gathered at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Albuquerque this fall to participate in the annual Student Leadership Conference, organized by GEAR UP New Mexico, a college and career readiness program at the New Mexico Higher Education Department.   

GEAR UP is a federally funded program that aims to increase access to resources for college and career readiness for students in grades 7 through 12. The program partners with middle and high schools in eight districts across New Mexico, serving high proportions of rural, low-income, and first-generation students in Albuquerque, Bernalillo, Taos, Española, Mountainair, Santa Fe and Socorro. 

Each year, the program hosts multiple student-centered conferences and events, including an annual student leadership conference that develops students’ capacity to lead their peers in developing plans after high school. 

GEAR UP’s College Engagement Officers (CEOs) are student leaders from GUNM’s eight partner high schools who assist in planning and carrying out GUNM events and service projects throughout the school year. During the conference, CEOs created career plans, learned how to engage in difficult conversations, listened to inspiring keynote speakers, and networked with colleges and workforce resource providers.  

“We aspire for students to take the knowledge they’ve acquired and share it not just with their peers at school but also with their siblings, families, and community members,” expressed Dr. Corine Frankland, State Director of GEAR UP New Mexico. “I’m excited to bring students, teachers, and these exceptional speakers together, especially in a post-COVID world where students are reintegrating into a society that has changed in numerous ways. I want students to be aware of the opportunities available to them, establish new friendships, and build networks as they prepare to pursue ambitious goals in their education and careers.”

The conference kicked off with a college and career fair featuring more than 20 different organizations. GEAR UP New Mexico stresses the importance of highlighting the accessibility of higher education in New Mexico with tuition-free college offered through the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship.  

“This conference has definitely gotten me out of my comfort zone. I am more confident when I speak because when I came here for the first-time last year, I realized I can be an excellent leader and my voice can be heard,” Natalie Slate said, a senior Los Puentes Charter School. 

Award-winning Tewa Hip-Hop and R&B artist Brenda Atencio, known as G Precious delivered an inspirational keynote speech about her traditional upbringing and her journey into the world of music. Following her speech, she performed, and her dancers encouraged students to join them on the dance floor to showcase their dance moves. Additionally, motivational speaker Juan Cangas from CoolSpeak also delivered a keynote address, sharing his personal challenges and triumphs on the road to success. 

Gitanjali Rao

Gitanjali Rao, inventor and TIME’s 2020 Kid of the Year, also spoke to students about the trial-and-error process she went through while developing her several projects — a key theme in her book “A Young Inventors Guide to STEM.” 

“At every conference — and I am a veteran at this point, I’ve been to several— I learn more about my students and watch them grow,” Melissa Mendonca, GUNM Program Coordinator at Albuquerque Talent Development Academy, said. “I see them challenge themselves and grow in new ways that are always exciting. It’s fun to see them become more who they are as they discover more about themselves. I see them build confidence, get excited and learn about each other, as well as themselves.”

On the second day, GUNM partners FOCUS Training and CoolSpeak hosted student workshops covering topics ranging from money management to self-expression. The conference culminated in a presentation from each GUNM school showcasing the traits of a good leader.  

“The conference has taught me a lot about leadership and the skills I need to be successful after high school, and especially in college,” Patrick Montoya said, a junior at Española Valley High School. “The skills I learned will definitely help advocate for myself and other students. It will help me my fellow GEAR UP CEOs and supporting those around me.” 

The GEAR UP program received $31.4 million from the U.S. Department of Education in 2020 to support a seven-year grant benefiting an estimated 7,000 students and parents each year. The program also looks forward to continuing the tradition of the Pathways to Success Native American College Readiness Conference and bringing additional college and career readiness opportunities to students and families.   

For more information about GEAR UP, visit  or follow GEAR UP New Mexico on Facebook and Instagram at @GEARUPNewMexico.

Award-winning Tewa Hip-Hop and R&B artist Brenda Atencio (G Precious) delivered an inspirational keynote speech about her traditional upbringing and journey into the world of music followed by a performance. Courtesy/NMHED

Students in attendance were encouraged to move out of their comfort zones, engaging with students from other schools and offering presentations on the different types of leaders they can be at their schools and beyond. Courtesy/NMHED

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