Meet the team
You’ll find most of the Arizona GEAR UP team in Phoenix at NAU’s North Valley campus. We’re a dedicated group of college-access professionals—passionate about helping all students reach and exceed their education goals. We accomplish this through collaboration with our project and school partners across the state.
Daniel L. Kain, Ph.D., Co-Principal Investigator Accordion Closed
Daniel L. Kain, Ph.D.
Dr. Daniel Kain is a professor in the College of Education at Northern Arizona University and Co-Principal Investigator (PI) for Arizona GEAR UP 2019-26. His role spans three grant cycles and more than a decade. In addition to overall project oversight, Dr. Kain brings to GEAR UP his expertise in curriculum and research-based instructional strategies and in middle school professional development with a specialty in problem-based learning. He also served as Principal Investigator on the 2010-12 research study of the Arizona GEAR UP intervention, academic mentoring. Dr. Kain is the former Dean of the College of Education and former Provost at Northern Arizona University.
Ramona Mellott, Ph.D., Co-Principal Investigator Accordion Closed
Ramona Netto Mellott, Ph.D.
Dr. Ramona Mellott is the Dean of the College of Education and Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI) for Arizona GEAR UP 2019-26. In addition to overall GEAR UP project oversight, Dr. Mellott is an active leader at the national level in discussions of professional science Master’s programs and their impact on both students and regional workforce development. Dr. Mellott joined NAU in 1991, beginning her career as a professor in the Educational Psychology Department in the College of Education, eventually becoming Chair of the Department. She was also the Dean of the NAU Graduate College from 2007 to 2014. She is a licensed psychologist who serves on the Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners. Her teaching and research expertise and interests include assessment, diagnostics, and research ethics.
Robert Neese, Arizona GEAR UP Director Accordion Closed
Arizona GEAR UP Director
As the Executive Director, Robert Neese brings more than two decades of leadership, executive-level administration, and management experience in government, non-profit, and education environments to Arizona GEAR UP. Robert oversees all programming, administrative, and fiscal requirements of the project. He creates and expands partnerships to meet grant objectives as he represents Arizona GEAR UP to all constituents. Robert’s team-building, results-driven style, “Practitioner-Researcher” collaborative partnerships, and comprehensive experience with federal government grants bring a level of expertise to Arizona GEAR UP that will increase preparation, access, and retention for students to succeed in postsecondary education. Robert earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Social Work from Arizona State University.
Andrea González Sotelo, Assistant Director Accordion Closed
Andrea González Sotelo
Andrea González Sotelo joined the state GEAR UP team in 2015. Early on, Andrea focused her career in promoting college-readiness and access among underrepresented populations. Andrea assists the Executive Director in leading the overall activities of Arizona GEAR UP and the State GEAR UP Office, overseeing all programmatic efforts, and evaluation infrastructure. Duties encompass leading partnerships with GU5E schools, the priority senior-year initiative, and the middle-grade initiatives; supervision of data collection, management, and analyses; and federal reporting. She is also a certified facilitator for Arizona’s on-line College Access Professionals (CAP) Training. Prior to joining NAU, Andrea worked in college access programs at Arizona State University, and at The University of Arizona in Tucson with the six-year GEAR UP Partnership Grant awarded to that institution in 2005. She received her M.Ed. in Educational Leadership from Northern Arizona University, and her bachelor’s degree in Family Studies and Human Development from the University of Arizona.
Andy Buckler, Manager, Financial Oversight Accordion Closed
Andy Buckler joined Arizona GEAR UP in 2020 and oversees all finance, budget, and accounting sections of the grant. He brings years of experience in similar roles in both the public and private sectors. Before coming to Arizona GEAR UP, Andy managed hundreds of millions annually in appropriated and non-appropriated funds that included federal, state, and non-government grants. He earned a master’s degree in finance from Indiana University, Bloomington Kelley School of Business, and a bachelor’s degree from Drake University.
Melissa Fast, Communications Manager Accordion Closed
Melissa joined Arizona GEAR UP in 2020 to lead communications strategy. With more than 25 years of public relations, marketing, and writing experience in the non-profit sector, her passions have always led her toward mission-driven work. She brings a strategic communications lens to the Arizona GEAR UP team as she supports and engages school and community partners on the mission to ensure all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, attain the postsecondary education they deserve. Melissa earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.
Kate Clarno, Program Manager 5E schools Accordion Closed
Kate joined Arizona GEAR UP in 2020 to lead programmatic initiatives with our 5E school partners. With 20 years of experience in education, counseling, nonprofits, and local and federal grant management, Kate brings breadth and depth to the GEAR UP team. Kate’s passion toward youth and education is evident in the fact her entire career has revolved around serving disadvantaged youth. Kate earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from San Diego State University, and she has extensive masters-level coursework in cultural education.
Ann Connelly, Program Manager of Middle-Grade Services Accordion Closed
Program Manager of Middle-Grade Services
Ann brings more than 20 years of experience in education and college access to Arizona GEAR UP. She has worked for Arizona GEAR UP in several capacities, including Site Coordinator for four years, the EXPLORE Manager for four years, and Program Manager of Middle-Grade Services. In her current role, Ann facilitates on-line College Access Professional (CAP) classes. Previously, she worked as a high school counselor at a GEAR UP high school. Ann earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Colorado State University and an M.Ed. in School Counseling from Northern Arizona University. Ann formerly served as State Coordinator for CAP Training in Arizona and works in collaboration with the Arizona Department of Education to increase the use and usefulness of AzCIS Junior in Arizona’s middle schools.
Daniel Pulu, Program Manager of Senior Year Services Accordion Closed
Program Manager of Senior Year Services
Daniel came to Arizona GEAR UP by way of Alaska in March 2020 as the Program Manager of Senior Year Services. He brings a wealth of experience in helping underserved students achieve postsecondary success. His roles included supervising day-to-day operations for a success center in Alaska, counseling students regarding college access, and assisting clients during the college admission process. Daniel also brings 10 years of experience working with diverse populations. Daniel earned a Master’s in Business Administration from Wayland Baptist University and a Bachelor’s in Sociology from the University of Alaska Anchorage.
James Christensen, Business Intelligence and Operations Manager Accordion Closed
James Christensen joined Arizona GEAR UP in 2020. Most recently, he was a Business Systems Advanced Analyst at Pima Community College where he managed student data for multiple campuses. Prior to that, he was the Director of Operations for a Tucson nonprofit called World Care. James earned a bachelor’s from NAU in Computer Information technology.
Rebecca McIlvaine, Academic Program Coordinator, Intermediate Accordion Closed
Rebecca joined Arizona GEAR UP in 2020. She found her passion helping students prepare for higher education when she worked in Admissions and the Registrar’s Office for the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She brings years of experience to GEAR UP with seven years working as a school counselor and over 13 years in the education field.
She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from Massachusetts College of Arts in Boston and graduate school at NAU.
Judi Paxton, Accountant, Senior Accordion Closed
Judi Paxton joined Arizona GEAR UP in 2020 to assist with the finance, budget, and accounting sections of the grant. Her experience includes creating, monitoring, and analyzing tens of millions annually in operating and capital budgeting. Judi has been responsible for providing oversight for hundreds of federal, state, and non-governmental grants. She has successfully worked with multiple federal agencies and provided multitudes of quarterly and annual financial reports to each.
Hector Ponce, Marketing Content Creator, Senior Accordion Closed
Marketing Content Creator, Senior
Hector Ponce joined Arizona GEAR UP Team in 2020. Hector assists in marketing and communications efforts to elevate Arizona GEAR UP, and he manages all social and digital platforms. He comes from a background in broadcast news and communications, and he earned a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Arizona. He returns to Arizona after working at a news station in Salt Lake City, Utah where he managed multiple social media accounts, produced news broadcasts, and wrote news stories. As a first-generation college graduate, Hector seeks to help students who aspire to postsecondary education.
Kitty Hager, Data Entry Specialist Accordion Closed
Kitty Hager joined the GEAR UP team in 2012. As Data Input Operator, she processes a variety of data associated with a large-scale college access program and produces reports that support program implementation and continuous improvement. Kitty also trains others on the use of the GEAR UP database for data entry and reporting purposes, and she helps develop forms and procedures that promote accurate, complete, and timely data collection and management.
Brooke Adams, Administrative Services Assistant, Senior Accordion Closed
Administrative Services Assistant, Senior
Brooke Adams joined Arizona GEAR UP in 2017. Brooke received her bachelor’s degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Management of Technical Operations. She comes to us from Prescott, Arizona, where she worked as the Academic Coordinator in another College Access Program–TRiO’s Upward Bound and Math Science Regional Center. She is also a wife, and mother of three amazing children.