Nearly $30 million in grants to help students in Western NC


The Appalachian Online

Madison Barlow

Earlier this month, Appalachian State University received two Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP, grants from the U.S. Department of Education, totaling nearly $30 million.

The grants will help increase the number of low-income students who are prepared for any sort of post-secondary education.

The grants will affect almost 15,000 students in 11 counties in Western North Carolina, including Alleghany, Ashe, Burke, Clay, Graham, Madison, Rutherford, Swain, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey. Extending through 2021, the grants will total approximately $4.1 million each year.

Jennifer Wilson-Kearse, the executive director of Appalachian’s GEAR UP program, has been working to rewrite the grants for the past several years after a previous grant was not refunded in 2011.

“It was very exciting to receive two big, helpful grants this year,” Kearse said. “I was particularly enthusiastic about these grants because the grants we applied for in 2011 were not funded. I worked on rewriting these grants from a historical position and strengthened the policies and procedures. Fifteen thousand students is a lot students, and it’s an awesome privilege to be a part of this program.”

Year one of the grants will serve sixth and seventh grade students. Year two will serve sixth, seventh and eighth grade students, and year three will serve sixth, seventh and eighth grade students as well as freshmen in high school. The goal of the grants and programs is to serve these students as they move through high school, and help their transition to their first semester of college.

Kearse believes that the GEAR UP program and grants are more meaningful because they extend over a seven-year period.

“Many grants only cover one or two years, but these GEAR UP grants are special because they are effective for so long,” she said. “The time frame allows us to establish good connections and relationships with the community and allows for the program to be even more meaningful.”

Partners of the grants include Discovery Place, UNC-Asheville, Western Carolina University, Isothermal Community College, Tri-County Community College, Wilkes Community College and the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

Kearse said these partners will encourage, support and possibly create professional development curriculum for teachers and provide various programs for guardians so they can support students to the best of their ability when they decide on post-secondary education.

Some of Kearse’s personal goals of this project are to determine how to best encourage post-secondary education in a rural setting on a national level and to support students and teach critical thinking skills.

“Since this program is for so long, we have the ability to get a good amount of information about post-secondary education in a rural setting,” she said. “I would love to use this information, not only in North Carolina, but also across the nation. I want as many people as possible to take advantage of this program’s information.”

While Kearse wants to focus on national post-secondary education programs, she also wants to help students in the 11 counties concentrate on a driving factor for Western North Carolina’s economy: small businesses.

“Small businesses are such a big part of the economy in this part of the state, so I would love to continue to spur these businesses by teaching students entrepreneurship and business, as well as critical thinking skills,” Kearse said. “My goal is to help these students, help the community and help these students help the community.”

Story: Madison Barlow, Intern News Reporter