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Under-represented Bridgeton students GEAR UP for post-secondary success.

Student mentors April Robledo and Xavier Gonzalez look over team-building workshop notes at Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland’s GEAR UP Summer Academy.
Student mentors April Robledo and Xavier Gonzalez look over team-building workshop notes at Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland’s GEAR UP Summer Academy.

In the summer of 2022, Rowan College of South Jersey’s–Cumberland (RCSJ) campus launched GEAR UP, a free program that helps low-income students gain the tools they need to flourish in tertiary education. GEAR UP is an acronym for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness in Undergraduate Programs.

“GEAR UP is a discretionary grant program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and administered by the Secretary of Higher Education,” said Shanice Ruiz, project director for the program at the college. “The GEAR UP program at RCSJ aims to increase the number of students from the City of Bridgeton who obtain a high school diploma and who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.”

Four Bridgeton schools—West Avenue School, ExCEL Program, Quarter Mile Lane School, and Bridgeton High School—have partnered with RCSJ to develop the program. GEAR UP serves students from 7th through 12th grade.

“GEAR UP provides academic enrichment for its participants through our Saturday Academy and six-week Summer Academy,” Ruiz said. “During both Saturday and Summer Academy, we offer students math, science, and ELA (English Language Arts) instruction. We also provide workshops to support academic success, college and career exploration, and socio-emotional development.”

An essential element of the program, according to Ruiz, is mentorship. “We have college students who serve as positive role models for our students and provide guidance to support their academic development.”

“We’re the frontline for students,” said April Robledo, a student mentor for GEAR UP. “They … have that confidence [in] our relationship to come to us with anything they need.”

A mentor’s role within the program, according to Robledo, includes establishing and coordinating college readiness workshops, planning specific programs, and building trust and rapport with the students.

“We also do a lot with tutoring,” said Xavier Gonzalez, who became a postsecondary success specialist, for the program at RCSJ, after previously spending time as a mentor. “We want them to grow as not only young students in general, but as young people entering … the real world. We want to basically show them what they need to know in and outside the classroom.”

Robledo, a sophomore who is pursuing an elementary education degree at RCSJ, created a team-building workshop for the Summer Academy that focuses on effective communication with the hopes of discovering leaders who “will rise up when [she or he] sees that there’s pure chaos.”

Robledo and Gonzalez, a biological science major at the college, spoke about the importance of empowering underrepresented students with the knowledge of the myriad resources available to them at GEAR UP.

“They think because they’re ‘minorities,’ they have disadvantages,” Gonzalez said. “[W]hile there may realistically be disadvantages, you can counteract them. There [are] ways for you to overcome that with these types of programs.”

Ruiz noted that GEAR UP offers Personal Education Plans (PEP), which are utilized to recognize a student’s academic strengths while also helping them in areas they can improve upon. GEAR UP also gives students an opportunity to travel by going on leadership and educational field trips to places like Rowan and Stockton universities, the YMCA of the Pines, plus more.

GEAR UP provides many benefits for the underrepresented Bridgeton youth who participate in this program, including, and maybe most importantly, the chance to connect with people who have their best interests in mind.

“Students who join the GEAR UP family will meet other motivated students from their community who can serve as part of their support system,” said Ruiz. “GEAR UP is an amazing community with passionate people who want to see our students succeed.”

For more information about GEAR UP, visit