More than two dozen eighth-graders from across the state have descended on the UNCG campus June 18-20 for a three-day, two-night immersion in college life.

The new GEAR UP leadership camp at UNCG is a partnership between the university’s Department of Counseling and Educational Development and GEAR UP NC, a federally funded program to help kids from disadvantaged school districts envision themselves as college students. Campers bunk in a residence hall, eat in the dining hall and explore the campus.

On day one, the campers — from Rockingham, Yancey, Warren, McDowell and Pamlico counties — did team building exercises in Foust Park, taking advantage of large oak trees to shade them from the summer heat. At one point, they put on blindfolds, relying on their peers for guidance.

Chris Graham, one of the camp counselors, watched them with a smile. “They’re an energetic bunch,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement. For many of them, it’s their first time on a college campus.”

Graham, the first in his family to attend college, just graduated from UNCG with an MS in College Counseling, Student Development and Higher Education and has a job lined up at Florida State University. For him, volunteering is a way to give back: His own middle school in Snow Hill, a small town in the eastern part of the state, was part of GEAR UP NC.

“I’d like them to start thinking about how they can create opportunities for themselves that can advance who they are,” he said. “I’d encourage them to take advantage of those opportunities, work hard, and be prepared when those opportunities present themselves.”

For Dr. DiAnne Borders, one of the counselor education professors overseeing the camp, the message she wants campers to take away is simple: College is for everyone. Like Graham, many of them would be first-generation college students.

“I want them to see that they have a lot of potential that in the eighth grade they may not realize yet,” she said. “It’s about whether you can see yourself on a college campus. If no one in your family has been to college, it’s hard to see that for yourself. Of course, we hope some of them will choose UNCG.”

Borders said engaging kids early is crucial, so they can take the courses they’ll need for college. “We like that GEAR UP starts in middle school.”

GEAR UP is an acronym for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Borders and her colleagues Dr. Laura Gonzalez and Dr. Erik Hines have worked closely with the College Foundation of North Carolina researching ways to overcome road blocks, like limited finances, that get in the way of college. Their work led to the relationship with GEAR UP NC, and the camp.

Hines’ research has centered on college access for African American males, while Gonzalez has focused on Latinos. “It’s not easy, there can be barriers,” she said. “They need support and resources.”

Leadership is another important part of the camp, and its theme is “Finding Your Voice.” In addition to the team building exercises, campers will hear from a panel of UNCG students, visit the Civil Rights Museum in downtown Greensboro and create visions of themselves as future leaders. UNCG’s Office of Leadership and Service-Learning has been a key partner in planning activities.

“It’s about asking, Who am I?” Gonzalez said. “What are my strengths? How can I stand up and let my voice be heard?

Story by Michelle Hines, University Relations

Photography by Chris English, University Relations