An Interview with GEAR UP Alumni

In honor of National GEAR UP Month, we asked some of our very first GEAR UP participants, who got started in Berea College’s program way back in 1999, what GEAR UP means to them.  Beth Coleman and Harold Burdette were middle-schoolers when GEAR UP came to Rockcastle County. They then continued with our program until they graduated from high school.  Thanks so much to Beth and Harold for taking the time to tell us their stories!

What is something that you remember about your experience with GEAR-UP?


Sometimes I wonder if I dreamed it, but I remember the very first “big” trip us “First Class” GEAR-UP students had to Chicago. I’m an only child and had to lobby a ton of family members to BEG my parents just to let me go to summer camp, so I had to use the same tactics to get my mom to let me go to Chicago.
My first trip to a major city outside KY, first trip away from my parents, it was a huge milestone. Even though it’s been a whopping 15 years since that trip, I can tell you everything still—how the GEAR-UP staff herded us through Lincoln Park like they were protecting baby ducks, every restaurant we ate at, how Andy instructed us not to pay people for free newspapers (my first introduction to The Onion)… But the part that really changed me for life was when we went to the Art Institute of Chicago. I had always been interested in art history since my time at Brodhead Elementary, where I did many projects on abstract and impressionist paintings. In particular, I was fascinated with Mary Cassatt—when I reached her exhibit at the Art Institute, I honestly cried. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but the moment stuck. As I grew up, I recognized that it was because I had never spent that much time thinking about my future. When I was a little kid looking at paintings in books, it never occurred to me that I might be able to go see them one day. It never really occurred to me the possibilities that were out there for where I could go and what I could do with my life. It was really the beginning for me, and I’ve tried ever since to repay GEAR-UP and Berea College for giving me that.


When reflecting on my time spent as an active GEAR UP participant, I cannot be more thankful for the collection of skills and knowledge I received from the program. Although college preparation was always the key focus of GEAR UP events, I also learned and perfected many other skills that also prepared me for the real world in general. For example, “Resume Composition and Critique” was particularly helpful for participants like me hoping to get a part-time job. We received etiquette training and knowledge of basic interview do’s and don’t’s. In my experience, there were countless opportunities for me to better understand effective leadership and team-building, and these techniques most certainly were employed in my college work-study position as a program manager for the Bonner Scholars program. GEAR UP not only prepared me for college; GEAR UP prepared me for life.

What does it mean to you to be a GEAR-UP alum?


There are a lot of students that GEAR-UP assists, a lot who have been touched over the years by their programs. Maybe we’re all alums. To me though, GEAR-UP was an experience that started back in 7th grade and has never really ended, not even after I graduated Berea. To be an alum, it means that you spent years learning about who you were as a person, a student, a young professional—and defining the skills that would allow you to both set goals, and then realize them. It’s not about field trips and sponsorships, it’s about evolving attitudes and skill development from a very young age, so that you can find a place in your local and global community. Also, when I say “First Class” GEAR-UP students, I just mean the “original” pilot program set, or myself and friends like Harold from RCMS (Rockcastle Middle School).


Without GEAR UP, my adult life would likely look completely different. I probably would not have gone to college without having gained what I did from GEAR UP. If I did go, it probably would not have been straight out of high school, and definitely would not have been the best-fit college. The GEAR UP staff were the people I looked to for support, because post-secondary education had never been a strong value where I come from. This program really gave me my first paycheck; I was a mentor to younger students for a couple weeks one summer enrolling at my high school, and the program paid me for my time. It was this experience that helped me realize how much I enjoyed connecting with people younger than me, that I could offer insightful guidance to those who have yet to experience what I had been through. During college, I continued in my efforts to help young folks in one way or another in my work-study positions. I graduated and went on to work for TRIO program Educational Talent Search in eastern Tennessee. College access and success is a field I have spent working the last five years, and I am thankful that I learned back then in high school about my ability to have a genuine connection with others,, and especially youth. This is the way I feel I am called to impact change in the world. To be a GEAR UP alum is very precious to me, and I wish to continue making meaningful connections with youth, in the same way the GEAR UP staff supported me, every day indefinitely.

What are you doing now? Was GEAR-UP a part of getting you there? How?


For the last few years, I’ve worked on developing customer service materials for a credit union in DC. My career trail has involved work for both the government and non-profits; and I never thought that this is where I would be professionally—but it turns out having a degree in communication studies and a sense of southern hospitality has some unique applications. This isn’t my end goal though. At the core, I’m passionate about development in Appalachia, and also increasing civic literacy and service learning opportunities for public schools. If I can finance it, and if I can find an opening, I’d like to do some work in DC and also bring it home to Kentucky. GEAR-UP prepares students as individuals for college/careers, but I think there’s a need to bridge that and prepare them to be involved in their communities. If we can build a generation that is committed to completing college, we can build a generation that is committed to pulling their friends and families up with them.
I talk about my GEAR-UP experiences constantly. It’s always one of the first pieces of information anyone who meets me hears. Leadership development stuff, even personality tests like Myers-Briggs coursework, made a huge difference in helping me put a name to what I NEEDED when picking a college or picking an employer. I’m a Gold-Green-ENTJ-Orange Fruit-Owl who can recite all the “7 Habits of a Successful Person.” Do I need all those to go to college? No. Did it make a difference in articulating who I am and what I need from my environment? Absolutely.


The culture of east Nashville is very different than any other demographic I had worked with previously, which was mostly rural settings. I am entering my third year based at Stratford STEM Magnet High School. There is a non-profit agency, Martha O’Bryan Center, based in the project housing area of east Nashville that operates an after-school program on the second floor of Stratford High School called “Top Floor.” Students participate in enrichment services, such as photography class, art class, cooking, etc. or record an original rap song in a sound booth. They also receive homework help and tutoring. My role the first two years was to help seniors understand the best-fit college for them based on several criteria, namely GPA and ACT score, but also skills, extra-curricular activities, cost, distance from home, etc. (I was employed by a partnering non-profit agency, Oasis Center College Connection, which allowed me to work as a staff member of the College Room of Top Floor every day of the week.) Most seniors would not have a plan for the Fall post-graduation without the assistance from the College Room staff of Top Floor, and as you can imagine, many seniors left Stratford with no plan at all—no college enrollment, no job, no nothing!
Earlier this year, I left Oasis Center and accepted a position with Martha O’Bryan Center. I work for a work-readiness program called Chapter 2, which helps put low-income students lacking experience to work. Our funding is grant-based and started in April of this year. Of the 52 participants we enrolled, we placed 45 of them in summer jobs! (Three others were able to find employment on their own.) Now we are at the beginning of a new school year and enrolling more new participants. I am targeting those low-income students who aren’t interested in college or simply do not know what to do once they graduate. When enrolled, they will be paid to participate in occupational skills Training throughout the school year, which I will facilitate myself. Students will learn how to get a job on their own, how to keep that job, and what skills they offer. Each student will receive career guidance, and if by the end of the school year someone does not have a job, Chapter 2 will place them in a summer internship. Once this paid work experience is complete, we will help participants find a permanent placement or some type of certificate training program, apprenticeship, etc. For me, this is very rewarding work, because it gives me the chance to reach out to students who are wandering aimlessly without direction, which is exactly the person I was before GEAR UP helped me understand my path!

About the Program:

GEAR UP, or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is designed to increase the number of low-income who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. Berea College received federal GEAR UP grants in 1999, 2005 and 2011.  To date, we have served more than 22,000 students and their families.

Dept. of Ed. Celebrates Berea College Upward Bound Alum

Chris Lipps, back row on the far right

Chris Lipps, back row on the far right

The U.S. Department of Education is celebrating 50 years of Federal TRIO programs this year, and today’s story highlights an alumnus from Berea College’s Upward Bound program!

“I was attending high school in Berea when I was approached by Upward Bound officials to attend this special program called “Berea College Upward Bound.”  In the two years I attended the Berea UB (1989-1990), I participated in so many activities and adventures that prepared me for my life.  That fact that I am legally blind with an eyesight of 0/2400 gave me little self-confidence, but learning technology, self-defense, social skills, and leadership gave me the courage and direction I needed.

Chris in 2013

Chris in 2013

 I am indebted to the Berea College Upward Bound Program with some of my favorite memories and life’s-lessons coming from this two-year adventure.  I am now a Christian children’s minister, graduate of Ashford University with a BA in Early Childhood Education and a MA in Organizational Management, and now I can say I am a Christian book author.  I use leadership skills every day to lead our newest generation and I am well respected among my friends and peers.  I am in charge of my church’s Sunday school department and in charge of seasonal events with high expectations of being my church organization’s Sectional Sunday school director.  In my book entitled “In a Baby’s Eye,” I speak kindly and honorably about some of my experiences with UB and what I learned through this program.  Even after 24 years of being out of UB, I still communicate with former UB associates. “

For more about the history of TRIO, go here.

To find out more about Berea College’s Upward Bound Math and Science program, go here.

Congratulations to Chris, a great representative of Berea and Upward Bound!