ATLANTIC CITY — Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools in Atlantic City and Pleasantville to transition to remote learning, Stockton University counselor Roxana Perez Nieves would visit students in person twice a month to sign them up for the federally funded GOALS/GEAR UP college-bound program.
Now, without face-to-face interactions, this and similar college-readiness programs across the state have been having problems recruiting new students this year.
“We are hearing the same challenges throughout the state,” Perez Nieves said. “We’re constantly chatting and brainstorming on ways we can reach out to potential scholars.”
Stockton’s Goal Oriented Advocates Leaders and Scholars (GOALS) and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs can serve up to 300 seventh- through 12th-grade students from Atlantic City and Pleasantville. Participating students receive after-school tutoring, college preparatory services and leadership training.
Currently, there about 34 new and returning students enrolled in Stockton’s GEAR UP. The program goes beyond just academic assistance, especially focusing on emotional and social wellbeing due to the challenges of a pandemic.
“They are virtual online all day at school. Even us adults, we talk about it all the time: We’re just Zoomed out. We completely understand,” Perez Nieves said. “Even just the word ‘college’ right now might be really hard for many students to think about when they can’t even think past today. It’s helping them feel and understand their emotions and just working on that right now.”
While Stockton’s program is fairly new — it is in year two of its first seven-year grant cycle — Rowan University’s college-bound program called CHAMP (Creating Higher Aspiration and Motivation Project) has been around for more than 30 years and is facing a similar challenge.
The program is able to serve about 420 students from Camden but is currently serving about 340. Participation in Saturday Academy, which occurs twice monthly, is down significantly, from an average of 100 students in years past to about 25 now.
Program coordinators have been creative in trying to lure new scholars into the program with social media campaigns, email blasts and even hosting a “virtual paint night.”
“You have to be creative because if you’re trying to get a student to log on on a Saturday morning, it has to be interactive for them. They’re not going to just log onto the computer to listen to you speak. It has to be hands on,” Rowan CHAMP Director Winona Wigfall said. “And we’re asking the students what it is that they want, what do they expect out of us as well, and what do they need?”
Perez Nieves said old-fashioned word-of-mouth recruitment has had the most success, so far.
“The scholars that have been returning will share the information with their friends. Teachers will share, too,” Perez Nieves said.
“Going into classrooms through Zooms and Google Classrooms has been helpful,” Wigfall said.
GEAR UP alum turned student mentor Kimberly Cortes-Salazar, 18, of Pleasantville, said she is doing her part to recruit, too, talking to her former teachers to encourage them to spread the word.
Cortes-Salazar participated in the GEAR UP program as a senior at Pleasantville High School before enrolling in Stockton as a health sciences major this fall and becoming a mentor. Currently, she has one student to mentor but helps out with other students when she can.
“When I first joined the program (at Pleasantville High School), I had my doubts,” Cortes-Salazar said. “When we left school during the pandemic, it was actually my (GEAR UP) counselors and mentors that were able to guide me. They gave us a little more attention to help us with the pandemic and getting into college.”
She said she is thankful for that.
“And I want to be able to do the same for anybody else who needs help but doesn’t know how to get it,” she said. “I try to motivate them. I understand. I’m a student as well. We all feel depressed, anxiety, due to this pandemic, but we have to find a way, an outlet to get rid of all that — a time, a space to clear our minds. I want them to have a safe place.”
She had a message for students who were unsure, like she was.
“If you have the opportunity to get into programs like these, take them. Don’t waste that,” she said.