‘They know where they’re going’

GEAR UP offers Montana students a glimpse of college life
Thursday, June 21, 2018

Yellowstone Newspapers photo by Hunter Herbaugh

Declan Harris (right) observes Hector Hernandez (left) as he prepares to crush a strawberry to extract its DNA for a biology lesson during the Montana University System’s GEAR UP program. The program allowed kids from across the state to attend college for a week and experience college life.

Middle and high school students from across the state took classes at Dawson Community College this week as part of the Montana University System’s GEAR UP program. GEAR UP, which stands for “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs,” is a federally-funded program that gives middle and high school kids from Montana, regardless of economic background, the opportunity to experience college life for a week, sometimes two. It also encourages them to continue their education after high school, according to local program organizer Marilyn Dutton, who works for DCC.

This is the 19th year DCC has hosted the program.

Dutton explained that the program is meant to teach kids who are thinking about attending college some of the responsibilities they will need to take on, including lessons on financial aid, registering for classes, meeting with advisors and using play money to understand necessary transactions, such as buying text books.

“It does open their eyes to what to expect in college,” Dutton said.

Many of the students learned that simply knowing the basics wasn’t enough to make it through college. During their time at DCC, students learned that going away to college will offer a degree of freedom, but with it comes responsibility as well.

“I understand that you do need to be independent for yourself, but it is nice you don’t have to be so dependent on other people,” said Hector Hernandez, a middle school student from Hardin.

The program serves kids in seventh to 12th grades, giving them opportunity to take classes like biology, including the homework that goes with the class.

This year, 23 students attended DCC as part of the program, coming from Lame Deer, Hardin, Thompson Falls and other places around the state.

The students were picked up at central locations, like Missoula for example, and were transported by bus to Glendive, arriving last Sunday. Expenses were paid out of the GEAR UP grant, allowing students to attend free of charge. According to the MT GEAR UP website, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the Montana Office of Commissioner of Higher Education a seven-year, $28 million GEAR UP grant in September 2011.

While at DCC, the students stay in the dorms, having full access to the commons where they are able to form study groups.

The students are overseen by counselors who act as sort of peer mentors and team leaders, according to counselor Hailey Wynne. DCC student volunteers serve in the counselor roles.

“We talk to them, we make sure everything is going okay, we tell them ‘you know, you have problems, you come to us.’ We take point and we just lead everybody around and we make sure they know where they’re going,” Wynne said.

Wynne also noted the counselors do more than just point the way, they interact with the students by playing games and providing other activities for them both day and night. They are also in attendance in each class and wander the halls to provide assistance to the students.

While at DCC, the students learn the details and what to expect of all the different degrees available to them. These are broken down into simple lessons that give a taste of each degree program, such as learning how to take fingerprints in the law enforcement program, or dissecting squids in the biology program.

Students attend classes just as they do during a normal school day, with each having classes starting at 8 a.m. in the morning and going until 9 p.m. at night, giving them a proper experience with what to expect in their college years, according to Dutton. Jennifer Temple, the biology professor at DCC, is happy to see the excitement in her students during her afternoon biology lesson.

“For the most part, I think they really do like science, and they come in and they’re ready to go. Like yesterday, they came in and they needed to finish some measurements, and they just got right to work, which is really cool,” Temple said. “They like it, they like to challenge themselves a little bit, so that’s nice.”

Temple’s middle school students began their lessons by learning about the different equipment they would use in the lab and, on Wednesday, continued their lessons on genetics by extracting DNA from strawberries.

The students weren’t limited to the DCC campus either. Being in Glendive gave them the opportunity to experience the badlands in Makoshika State Park. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the kids learned things such as how to play “folf” and learned facts about dinosaurs from the park rangers, according to Dutton.

As well as learning about college life, the students also can earn scholarship opportunities as part of the program, Dutton added.

Contact Hunter Herbaugh at rrreporter@rangerreview.com .


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