Gear Up Kentucky summer program gives high school students a taste of college life

lblackford@herald-leader.comJuly 6, 2014 

Jared Casebolt has learned a lot at his summer program at the University of Kentucky, but the biggest surprise? The walking.

"It's so far between everything," said the 15-year-old sophomore from Bellevue High School in Northern Kentucky.

Casebolt is one of about 70 students from across the state who are in Lexington for three weeks to get a taste of college life, including the fact that it's hard to get from one end of campus to the other in just 10 minutes.

He's also getting some other new experiences: dorm life, really long lectures, foreign films, acting class and writing skills — "I'm understanding what college would be like," as Casebolt described it.

That's the idea behind Gear Up Kentucky's first three-week summer program, which has grown out of a $26 million federal grant over six years to help more kids get to college.

Administered by the Council on Postsecondary Education, Gear Up money has been targeted mostly at middle and high schools, teaching nearly 13,000 kids the many skills they will need to get to and get through a college education.

Research has shown that Gear Up, which started in Kentucky in 2000, has helped more low-income and minority students get to college and stay there. For example, 43 percent of Gear Up students in Kentucky enrolled in college, compared to 35 percent for a comparison group of similar students, according to a 2013 study.

This is the third round of funding; Kentucky received $10 million in 2000 and $21 million in 2005. This time, state officials knew they wanted to spend some of the money providing students with direct access to university life.

"What we know from our previous work on the grant is that students having opportunities to be in a campus significantly impacts their going to college," said Yvonne Lovell, executive director of Gear Up Kentucky. "What we know is that students are tripped up when they get to college because they don't know how to maneuver, so we want to get them acclimated early enough so some of those barriers can be broken down."

UK and Western Kentucky University were chosen to host the program, and the postsecondary council turned over much of the planning to them. At UK, that work fell to Randolph Hollingsworth, assistant provost for undergraduate education.

"This is an authentic experience in many ways," said Hollingsworth, who has been developing the program for almost two years. "We're trying to model a microcosm of your first-year experience."

For the Gear Up kids, it's a first-year experience with less free time than most first-year college students get. They wake up in the Blanding IV dorm in time for 8 a.m. classes and keep going until 9 p.m., shepherded by resident advisers and teaching assistants.

Many of the classes are based on UK's core curriculum, which uses different academic classes to foster more creativity and critical thinking. So students are taking classes in chemistry, writing, acting and photographic literacy. At night, they write in their journals and attend foreign films.

Immersion in a foreign culture has been Erica Koffer's favorite part of the program so far. The Winchester sophomore has loved living in a dorm, which she did not expect, and loved the evening seminars on Russia.

"I tried the food and learned all about the culture," she said.

Hollingsworth said all college deans at UK were instrumental in creating the summer program, which they hope to expand every year. It's also in UK's interest to get more students comfortable with college so fewer drop out before, during or after their freshman year.

Theater instructor Matthew Lewis Johnson is himself a first-generation college student, so he was happy to help with the acting class.

"They seemed overwhelmed at first, but as the week went on, they seemed better about being away from home," he said last week almost midway through the program at UK.

He's been working with the students on ways to express their personalities through body language, and a recent assignment was to go outside, watch people move and record what they saw.

Madelynn Schweitzer said the program was kind of stressful the first week.

"But now that I've adjusted to longer class schedules and being around a bunch of people I didn't know, it's more fun," she said. "It's been a good experience for me to get used to college life."

The program continues through Saturday at UK and through July 19 at WKU.

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359.Twitter: @lbblackford.

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