Joseph Camacho began his journey with GEAR UP — Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs — when he was in seventh grade. Now a second-year criminal justice major at Cal State Fullerton and a GEAR UP Alumni Leader, he's helping inspire a new crop of junior and high schoolers to aim higher.
"GEAR UP molded me into the student I am today. I'm a first-generation college student, so getting into college was not easy. I knew I needed to go, I just didn't know how," he explains.
GEAR UP is a federally funded college access and success program serving approximately 700,000 low-income students starting in seventh grade that follows them through high school graduation or the first year of college. The GEAR UP Alumni Leadership Academy (GUALA) is a 12-month leadership development program for up to 30 GEAR UP alumni.
Camacho and other selected alumni leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., this summer for a week of training on grassroots and social media advocacy and leadership skills. The different workshops, says Camacho, were designed to improve their characters as leaders. They also met with state representatives and senators to introduce legislators to GEAR UP or ask them to continue to support the program.
The most important thing he learned during his time in D.C., he says, is how to use his voice. "A company called CoolSpeak showed us how important our voice is — how using our voices opens doors and opportunities when you least expect it. ... This taught me to grow out of my comfort zone and not be afraid to speak up."
Camacho, says Adriana Badillo, campus GEAR UP director, jumped at the opportunity to be a part of GUALA. "We saw his dedication to the program and how involved he was."
She and Alexandro Gradilla, chair and associate professor of Chicana and Chicano studies, are acting as GUALA coaches, making sure participants are on track academically and helping them fulfill their potential through opportunities and mentorship.
"The first time I met Joseph, he was in ninth grade," says Badillo. "Being there to support him through academic counseling, and now seeing him here at Cal State Fullerton, is an amazing experience."
Camacho became a GEAR UP Leader in his junior and senior years at Katella High School in Anaheim, promoting the program to his peers. After enrolling at Cal State Fullerton, he continued volunteering his time at different schools.
He and Francisco Avilés Pino, a Fullerton College student and fellow alumni leader, are brainstorming ideas to get more high school students engaged to host their own college-transition and financial-aid workshops.
"I hope to just be able to apply my new and improved leadership skills to make a difference in my community," says Camacho. "I would like to see more students from my hometown attend college and find success in it. I know the importance of education and I want to be another advocate to these students and show them all is possible with hard work."
"Hopefully, the work that we do trickles down and has a ripple effect. Yes, we do help a number of students, but the work that we do transcends those students," explains Badillo. "I hope that through GEAR UP we're making communities better. We're improving communities through self-empowerment."