INSTITUTE, W.Va. — High school students from around the state are getting an opportunity to get the college experience early this week.

Nearly 180 soon to be high school seniors are at West Virginia State for GEAR UP U summer academy, hosted by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC).

The academy helps students prepare for postsecondary education with courses and activities geared towards SAT, ACT, scholarships, and more.

“They have the opportunity to stay in the residence halls, eat in the cafeteria,” JR Luyster, the Camp Director said.

“I have hired camp counselors, who are current college students, to mentor them throughout this week and talk about what are some of the unforeseen obstacles and hurdles and challenges in that transition from a high school student to a college adult.”

Luyster, who is also the Interim Assistant Director at HEPC, said there are 23 high schools from 10 counties in the West Virginia Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP).

He added that 10 different courses are offered from college professors during the camp including subjects in arts, humanities, forensic science, criminal justice, business, and even a STEM activity with Texas Instruments.

Camper Jordan Fitzwater from Hannan High School is particularly interested in the criminal justice course, with hopes of going to law school following graduation.

Fitzwater said that the GEAR UP U academy gives students like him from small schools a chance.

“Our community around Hannan, we don’t have a lot of stuff,” he said.

“We are not doing too good with the whole money situation, it’s like that sometimes. I feel like letting people know there are other options out there even if you don’t have the money to pay for college, it really does help.”

Fitzwater is also a part of the Higher Education Readiness Officer (HERO) program at GEAR UP and leads Hannan.

He has said that through the HERO program, more kids have gotten interested in the academy.

“We come from this camp and we do our HERO stuff at school with assemblies and guest speakers. Students see that and they think it’s cool,” he said. “They ask where we learn things like that, we tell them Gear Up and then they sign up.”

The 5-day, 4-night event is part of a seven-year, $21 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education as this current academy started with the GEAR UP program in seventh grade.

Following the activities around college visits, college knowledge, financial aid information, and awareness, a closing ceremony is scheduled for Saturday where potential scholarships for W.Va. State will be awarded.

The HEPC hopes to receive the grant again in 2021 for another seven-year program.

This current GEAR UP class will receive help the first year out of high school as well, which Luyster and the program hope that will be in West Virginia.

“There’s a lot of our incentives and a lot of our financial aid programs through the state of West Virginia are designed to keep our talented and educated students in the state and keep them working,” he said.

Learn more about GEAR UP by clicking HERE.

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