Since the beginning of Arizona GEAR UP, a program staple has been building positive community relationships that empower students to reach their full potential.
In 2002, Emily Johnson worked for Kino Jr. High and became one of the first GEAR UP Coaches in Arizona. The first GEAR UP grant was a cohort model that followed a class from middle school through high school graduation.
For the next six years, Emily, or “Miss Johnson,” as her students still call her to this day, she mentored students and watched them grow. She started with a class of 300 students that grew up to 1,000, which speaks to her dedication and expertise.
“One of the most important things GEAR UP taught me was the power of relationships,” Miss Johnson said. “I believe a key factor in our success was the relationship and trust the students built in me.”
With this growing trust, Miss Johnson could encourage students to go above and beyond. One example she gave was pushing her students to attend the GEAR UP Summer Program at Northern Arizona University. She said the students were reluctant at first. Since they trusted her, they attended the camp, and they had a great time learning about higher education and self-reflection.
“I had an amazing group of students. I feel so lucky to have worked with all of those kids.” Miss Johnson said. “They were extremely bright and driven, but there were some real-world barriers that presented challenges.”
Through relationship building, Miss Johnson learned about her students, the challenges they faced, and how best to help. As part of a newly adopted grant, Miss Johnson saw how GEAR UP helped break down barriers and helped students succeed.
“Sometimes it is as simple as knowing that there are options out there,” Miss Johnson said.
Throughout the years, Miss Johnson worked with students, preparing educational plans and following up to see how they are progressing.
“These meetings would help point students in the right direction, and they would leave the meetings so empowered,” Miss Johnson said.
Miss Johnson provided resources that students might not have had otherwise. She helped them register for the right classes and apply for colleges and financial aid.
“I think this class was something special. We wanted to be a part of something bigger. And the fact that we were able to hold the entire class made a positive impact on the kids,” Miss Johnson said.
Her first cohort graduated in 2007, and she still hears from them to this day.
“My husband and I don’t have children, so I always say I have hundreds,” Miss Johnson said jokingly. “I mean, they were teenagers, and we got to experience all the beauties that come with that. It was a true honor to be part of that with those kids.”