GEAR UP Alabama harnesses the power of collaboration to serve students in Alabama’s Black Belt

A UAB-led program is in its fourth year of work to strengthen the path to college for more than 10,000 students in Alabama’s Black Belt Region.

Written by: Tiffany Westry

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gear up selma streamUAB faculty, staff, students and GEAR UP Alabama Regional Coordinators pose for a photo in front of Selma High School.In its fourth year, a seven-year initiative to increase college and career readiness for 10,808 high school students in Alabama’s Black Belt is providing much-needed resources and guidance to prepare them for their first year of college.

There have been many milestones since work on the $60.2 million Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness of Undergraduate Program grant was awarded to the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education in 2014 — $24.5 million of which is from the U.S. Department of Education and $35.7 million matched by donations from partners and in-kind support, which includes time, effort, donation of services, space and other non-monetary contributions. The cohort of students in the program represents 43 high schools in 17 counties.   

“The first three years were spent creating a foundation for students,” said Tonya Perry, Ph.D., principal investigator. “Now that they are all in ninth and 10th grades, we are building on that earlier infrastructure, providing additional opportunities for students, such as dual enrollment, strategic camp experiences, ongoing ACT review, and mentoring and advising sessions to prepare them for college and careers.”

 In 2015, the Alabama Community College System entered into a partnership with GEAR UP Alabama to provide full tuition waivers to students in the classes of 2020 and 2021 who meet specified criteria for admission to attend any public community or technical college in the state. The ACCS also committed to providing tuition assistance to parents of GEAR UP Alabama students who qualify for admission. Currently, more than 30 parents have taken advantage of the opportunity to go back to school.

“We recognize that parents and families are the first teachers and, ideally, the greatest influence in a child’s life,” said Samantha Elliott Briggs, Ph.D., project director. “As we work to create a college-going and career culture in our schools, and mindset in our students, we understand the need for a total paradigm shift — one that includes parents and families. Our work cannot focus on the student and their teachers alone; we need buy-in from everyone involved to reach our ultimate goal of increasing the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

Since the grant was implemented, GEAR UP Alabama, its community partners and partnering institutions have organized a range of services for the students that include intensive academic tutoring and mentoring, as well as financial literacy and health and wellness workshops for students and their families. The academic services will continue through the first year of college for students graduating in the class of 2020, and through high school graduation for the students in the class of 2021.

GEAR UP Alabama’s work to increase postsecondary engagement continues, and UAB is leading the way.


This past fall, the program launched “Black Belt Fridays.” Once a month, dozens of UAB students, administrators, faculty and staff boarded a bus and traveled to a high school in one of GEAR UP Alabama’s five regions to engage students in one-on-one mentoring.

gear up selma girlGEAR UP Alabama students learn about computer coding during 2017 summer camp at the University of Montevallo.

GEAR UP Alabama students shared stories about their summer enrichment experiences, and mentors helped students reflect on their most recent progress report grades and establish goals for future improvements and shared their own college and career journeys with the students. The students will be mentored throughout the remainder of the school year and beyond.

Identifying the gaps and creating solutions

In October, the program established the GUA-UAB Advisory Board, which is in addition to a Higher Education Advisory Board that includes all of the program’s partnering institutions. GEAR UP Alabama stakeholders shared current research trends and program needs with UAB faculty and staff.

“The greatest takeaway from our first meeting was being able to inform our colleagues about the work we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish, tapping into their skillsets and resources and generating new ideas about how we can best serve the students in the program,” Briggs said.

One result of the first advisory meeting was the creation of a service learning course in the UAB Honors College. Led by Josie Prado, Ph.D., UAB students explored the culture, history, politics and economics of the Black Belt. While doing so, students served as mentors and created videos and other resources for students in the GEAR UP Alabama program to learn about what careers inside and outside of the Black Belt are available to them.

College experience

GEAR UP Alabama students can now take advantage of dual-enrollment through UAB Start. Students who meet specific pre-ACT and GPA requirements can take introductory college courses. Students can take up to two courses at UAB this summer or in the fall, which includes an orientation to online learning.

In partnership with John Jones, Ph.D., vice president of Student of Affairs, UAB will host more than 1,200 GEAR UP Alabama students for summer enrichment mini-camps. Camp activities will include attending a class on campus and becoming familiar with campus libraries. UAB students will help supervise, and UAB faculty from across multiple disciplines will lead classes and other activities for the students. UAB students, faculty and staff who are interested in volunteering can sign up here.

GEAR UP Alabama students will also have the opportunity to attend camps at partner universities this summer. To learn more about GEAR UP Alabama, visit the program website